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A new approach to sanitation for the poor.

Pratima Joshi and Srinanda Sen of Shelter Associates are architects with a difference .

Two young architects of Pune have a practice that will not get into the glossies. Their work is unglamorous: housing and sanitation for the poor. They do not even claim to have ready design solutions. They merely formalise and technically embody the ideas of their customers - the dwellers of Pune's slums. Their work is beginning to be noticed widely, if slowly.


Let us start this story here: What is your image of Pune? No, wrong. It's not your 'Tranquil Poona' any more. Like its fairy cousins, Bangalore, Shimla or Ooty, Pune is an emerging urban nightmare. 40% of Pune lives in slums: a circumstance due largely to the curious Indian 'need' for servants and cheap services. Can squalor then, be far behind?

But this story is not a diatribe or a statement of known issues. It is about the positive responses being made by *us*, the very same culpable Indians. Shelter Associates through which Pratima and Srinanda work is not some odd swallow that fakes a cheery summer. Through their story we shall meet the many minds and spirits that are striving for solutions.

They began in 1993 - rather naively. They thought it was all a legal process. Didn't the Maharashtra Slum Areas [Improvement, clearing and redevelopment] Act, 1971 guarantee the slum dwellers' rights to services. All they had to do was to wave the 'law' at the government; little did they realise that the government too can wave back its own version of 'compliance'.

It soon dawned on them that it was not a matter of getting the government to build, but one of getting structures built the way people want them and will feel responsible for. This is a recurring theme in India: get the people involved in design and construction and they will cherish their assets; but plonk 'one-size-fits-all' structures all over the map and you have people heap physical contempt on them.

The SPARC that lit it:

As they began to look around for solutions that the Pune Municipal Corporation [PMC] would embrace, they came across the work of the Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres [SPARC] and Mahila Milan, Mumbai. The first is active in issues that concern the urban poor and the second is its delivery arm, that works through women.

In 1986, Mahila Milan had got 500 homeless women together to explain to them the virtues of the 14 feet house with a sleeping loft, advocated by SPARC. The women were encouraged to explore and improvise methods of building it. Some of these women travelled widely in India to see various techniques. They discovered the 'laadi' in far Quilon Building Centre, Kerala. Today the laadi is ubiquitous. It is simply a pre-fabricated, cement funicular shell, lightly reinforced with a steel rod all around its edge. Imagine it as a 30" x 30" shallow box with a TV screen like, gentle bulge built into its face for strength. Women easily mould these in great numbers and after they are cured by soaking in water for a fortnight, they can stand robust kids jumping up and down on them. The other pre-fab part required is a number of slender 11' long reinforced concrete beams. Walls are raised up to about 8 feet height, beams are placed evenly, laadis are spread out edge to edge and mortar is poured and dressed down. The roof is ready! Building proceeds to 14' feet height and the roof is repeated.

The 14' model house with pre-fab parts, is pregnant with many possibilities: it is cost attractive, quick to build because of the prefabricated components it uses, allows the owner to contribute labour by creating the pre-fabs on site and above all it whets owner enthusiasm because she can personalise the house-shell in several ways to meet her family's need.

Shelter Associates had absorbed the technology and funded by SPARC, built 2 houses in 1995, with people participating in its construction. PMC Commissioner Ramanath Jha was impressed. So the next year when shaky houses in the Rajendranagar slum had to be demolished following floods, he quickly cleared a plot of land in Dattavadi, for the homeless people. In just over a year 56 apartment-shells stacked in the ground plus one mode were handed over to builder-owners. The block broke several new grounds: families contributed all the unskilled labour. The houses were not free: they paid for the houses [that cost a bargain, Rs.33,000 each] with Rs.6000 down plus installments to clear loans from HUDCO. There is a toilet for every four families. Throughout construction women led the activity and closely managed it. Fittingly all the houses are registered in their names. Each house's interior gets personalised and adapted as its owners earn and save. It's a constantly growing, improving organic building as against the normal government-contractor built structures that begin to degrade the moment they are handed over. Above all the Dattavadi project taught the PMC to trust NGOs like Shelter Associates.

Toilet training the administration:

The Dattavadi Project had also shown how the owners cherished their toilets. Pratima and Srinanda began to realise how meaningless slum statistics can be. Data on paper had to become meaningful information. They began an exercise in spatial mapping of Pune's slums using sophisticated GIS software. The then PMC Commissioner Mr. Ratnakar Gaikwad came to be surprised by the oddities spatial maps threw up. For example, toilets that were just numbers could now be viewed for their reach and usage - or rather their lack. Likewise, roads, lights, creches, health centres and all the pathetic amenities of a slum began to tell different stories.

Toilets govern a lot of human issues: personal hygiene, public health, street behaviour, crime rate and above all dignity and self esteem. Gandhi was not naive when he harped on the centrality of sanitation in development. Gaikwad soon realised the old way of contractors building officially designed toilets don't work. People had to be consulted and involved in design and maintenance of these. Thus began the PMC-NGO Millennium Toilet Building Drive.

Eight NGOs were chosen to work with the PMC - among them Shelter Associates. And Shelter Assoc. began by spawning "Baandhinis" [meaning 'the Bond'], which are women - led local groups in the project areas that would research, counsel, plan, build, administer and maintain the community toilets - with Shelter Assoc. only formalising and technically finessing the ideas. Thus began an exciting adventure.

The first act was to demolish the existing toilets - they were unusable any way! The process broke with the past in that little human labour was used in clearing septic tanks -- Shelter Assoc. brought in mechanical excavators. Then came the designing part. Baandhinis would endlessly discuss and narrate their needs and the architects would draft plans with costs and soundness in mind.

Many innovations bubbled up: aqua privies don't work well, so septic tanks were a must; these tanks would be built of ferro-cement in situ; a water connection was mandatory; each toilet block would have a multi-purpose space on the first floor; men and women enclosures will have absolute separation; hard wearing gently-sloping stone slabs would be used instead of ceramic floor tiles; spaces are to be airy and bright; and finally, the delightful innovation of the 'baby channel' within the ladies' wings. Here children could safely squat within their mothers' view and the poo can be driven off with a little water. No more squatting in the streets!

The eye-opener was the peoples' sense of ownership. Meet Baidabai Pawar. She heads the Ambedkarnagar-Dhayari Baandhini that manages their community toilet. She was a powerhouse of a leader throughout the project. She supervised quality, kept a vigil on materials, maintained accounts and rallied her neighbours into active participation. Their Baandhini meets above their pride of a toilet. Each of the 60 or so user families pays Rs.20 per month. Baandhini pays for the services of a care-taker, maintenance and the electricity bills.

Shelter Assoc. have built 13 toilet units -- each custom designed for the location-- in various Pune slums. [In all, 200 new toliet blocks amounting to 3000 seats have been built by the eight NGOs working under this project.] Baandhinis actively manage the toilets. In some, local artists have painted murals on the walls. In some, local boys sought maintenance 'contracts' in return for some spending money. Some communities let out the first floor space for private functions. In some there are gyms and in others night schools or a creche and so on. Poor though they may be, users always pay their dues.

The BOO model:

The commitment of Pratima Joshi and Srinanda Sen endures, even if the financial health of Shelter Associates is forever fragile. They work with a staff of 15 out of a flat loaned free by Pratima's father and they themselves work for nothing. Their work is beginning to be noticed. They and Baandhini women --among them the redoubtable Baidabai--have travelled to Solapur and Sangli to evangelise their learning. The BOO -- Build, Own, Operate-- toilet idea is spreading.

Pratima and Srinanda are probably unaware of the larger mission they serve. They are in fact, neo-Gandhians. For did he not --amidst all his other preoccupations-- constantly drone that in our approach to private and public sanitation lies our commitment to true freedom and dignity?


Shelter Associates

P O Box 887

Deccan Gymkhana

Pune - 411 004, (India)

eMail: shelter-ip@eth.net

Shelter Assoc. Web Site

Phone : [091-020] 4440363



Post Box 9389

Mumbai 400 026


SPARC Web Site

Phone: [091-022] 2851500 / 2836743


For an article on SPARC and Mahila Milan, go here




Shelter Associates

Click below for some views of the Dattavadi Project

The court yard

A small family

A large family