Awards 2004 Specially Commended: The Indian Alliance

Specially Commended: The Indian Alliance

Receiving the award

Latha's home in Mumbai ( Bombay ) was near an old municipal toilet block. She felt ashamed when friends visited her, because of the stench. Men spat betel juice on the toilet seats. The toilet area became a mosquito-ridden rubbish dump and the rubbish clogged drainage ditches. Her children frequently got sick. Typhoid and malaria were common. Now all that has changed. The local community has pulled down the old block and built a new one.

The community was inspired by what happened in the city of Pune ( Poona ), east of Mumbai, after Ratnakar Gaikwad became municipal commissioner - the civil servant heading the city administration. In 1999/2000 he decided to get 440 toilet blocks replaced or freshly built by 2001, before he was moved on to another job.

Instead of giving the work to contractors, he offered it to non-government organisations on three conditions. They had to work with the local slum communities and get them to accept, manage and maintain the toilets. The communities had to take on the responsibility of the construction contract, and to execute that work themselves in a particular time frame.

This was an opportunity for the Indian Alliance, which consists of the Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC), a network of women's savings collectives called Mahila Milan, and the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF). SPARC was set up by professional people in Mumbai in 1984 to work with poor people who wanted to organise themselves to address their problems. Women living on Mumbai's pavements decided that the way to get organised was to set up a savings scheme: hence Mahila Milan (Women Together), which became particularly strong in Pune. To the previously all-male NSDF, the Alliance offered a chance to work collaboratively with women and to draw on SPARC's expertise.

Indian Alliance

SPARC bid for toilet contracts on behalf of the Alliance as a whole, and was awarded 33 contracts. The communities then took on the responsibility for managing these. Some community groups took on a single task: demolishing old toilets, buying materials, or plumbing. Some women, though illiterate, acquired the confidence to take on whole contracts and deal with officials, some of them reluctant to deal with women, others bribe-seeking. One woman, Savita Sonawane, noted: "In the beginning, we didn't know what a drawing or a plinth was. We didn't understand what a foundation was or how to do the plastering. As we went along, we learned more and more and now we can build toilets with our eyes closed."

All this was not popular with contractors nor with those councillors and others accustomed to getting a cut from council projects. Some councillors, however, were supporters from the start and others became so when they saw the results. The new toilet blocks were brick-built, light and airy, with tanks to ensure the water supply. There were toilets specially designed for children. Because the new toilets were designed, built and maintained by local people, not simply for them, the communities feel a sense of ownership and look after them carefully. The blocks include a home for a caretaker, who also helps to collect a small monthly fee from community members to pay for maintenance. Some blocks have a community hall built on top.

Building toilets gave both men and women a chance to earn some money. A third of the construction cost came from the city, a third from Maharashtra state and a third from the national government through the Housing and Urban Development Corporation.

The scheme in Pune has encouraged other slum dwellers to try similar approaches. In 2001, following extensive negotiations with various authorities, the Alliance obtained a contract to build 320 toilet blocks in the slums of Mumbai. It now plans to promote this new approach in smaller towns and cities, where local governments tend to have less money, and their administrations tend to be less 'open'. The Alliance plans to find out what government and other funds may be available to support this expansion.

Homeless International, a charity set up by British housing associations, has supported the Alliance's work for more than 15 years, including that in Pune. Toilet-building in Mumbai has also received bridging finance from the Community Led Infrastructure Financing Facility, an innovative financing mechanism set up by Homeless International and SPARC and supported by aid money from Britain and Sweden .

The judges say

We felt that such a large and challenging project deserves great encouragement in that it is trying to address the issue of sanitation in the poorer parts of Mumbai. It should be given recognition of managing such a simple concept and turning it into an organisation as well as making significant changes in the regions.

"The organisation should be praised for its dedication to long-term sustainability"

The Indian Alliance ,
P.O.Box 9389 , Mumbai 400 026, India;
tel +91-22-2386 5053; fax +91-22-2388 7566