Slum sanitation in India – Is there a case for private toilet provision?


The challenge of rapid and unplanned urbanisation that India is facing and will continue to face over the coming decades needs no introduction. Of the 93 million slum residents in India, 81 per cent have inadequate access to sanitation, according to a 2008-09 National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) survey* on the characteristics of slums. That is to say, they lack the facility of either an individual toilet or a shared toilet. They are forced to depend on badly maintained and overcrowded toilet blocks or, for 15 per cent, have no form of toilet at all. Open spaces are thus the only option.

In this blog post we look at the scale of the challenge, the limits of current provision and the need for private investment and government support. More detail on the design of private provision options for slum sanitation is covered in a new Project Resource.

This lack of sanitation has far-reaching effects: it imposes significant public health and environmental costs on urban areas that contribute more than 60 per cent of the country’s GDP^. A 2006 report by the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) estimated that the total annual impact of inadequate sanitation in India amounted to a loss of INR 2.4 trillion#.

The slum challenge

Indian slums can roughly be categorised based on whether they are officially recognised by the state government (notified) or not (non-notified). Notified slums are legally entitled to the provision of basic services from the government. The NSSO survey shows that non-notified settlements have weaker infrastructure compared to their notified counterparts.

Each state has its own way of defining when a slum can be deemed notified, which makes it difficult to build a uniform picture of the slum scenario in India. However, a broad and useful definition of slums as used by the NSSO is:

“A compact settlement with a collection of poorly built tenements, mostly of temporary nature, crowded together usually with inadequate sanitary and drinking water facilities in unhygienic conditions.”

As can be seen from the above definitions, despite challenges faced in other basic necessities like electricity, roads and safe housing, the lack of access to adequate water and sanitation and unhygienic living conditions remain the major concerns by which one defines a slum settlement. The frequently illegal nature of slum settlements, a lack of supportive infrastructure, space constraints, low income levels of slum residents and poor levels of government intervention are among the main contributing factors to this situation.

Numerous sanitation strategies

Given the variation in infrastructural, economic and cultural characteristics across slums, many solutions have been developed in an attempt to address the issue of sanitation. The figure summarises some main models.

According to the NSSO survey, only 19 per cent of urban Indian slums have owned and shared toilets available to a majority of their residents. In 50 per cent of slums, the prevalent form of sanitation for residents is public or community toilet blocks.This is the most practical solution in settlements where water and sewerage connections have limited reach and additional space availability constraints are encountered.

Toilet blocks- a mixture of public, private and non-profit involvement

A toilet block is a constructed common bathroom facility with seats ranging from 5 to 25. It can either be accessible to the general public (public blocks) or have restricted use to within a community or slum (community blocks). The toilet block concept has a long history of public private partnerships of various kinds, with the most visibly scaled being the Sulabh model.

Sulabh model – public and community blocks

In this largely prevalent model, the government provides the land and capital investment to a private or non-profit body who then constructs, operates and maintains the toilet in return for the right to collect usage fees.This model is followed for both public and community toilet blocks and is present across the country, thanks to Sulabh. The publicly accessible blocks usually operate on a purely pay per use basis and do not offer the cheaper option of monthly pass to regular users from communities nearby. The pass system is found instead in community dedicated toilet blocks, where families are issued an ID card and allowed to use the facilities by paying a monthly fee.

The main challenge of this model has been to run the toilet blocks profitably. Infrastructure maintenance, given the cement based construction of the block, makes up the major portion of expenses while the salary of the toilet caretaker is the other large component. Many community blocks run at a loss given the restricted target segment and the lower revenue generating monthly pass system. Large network players like Sulabh are able to cross subsidise unprofitable community blocks with public blocks that see high footfall and have premium pay-per-use collections.

There are other models for toilet blocks; however they run at a smaller scale.

Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT): This model was piloted for public toilet blocks in Delhi around the year 2000. It involves the private contractor bearing the cost of construction on land provided by the government, but being allowed to use the outer walls of the premises to generate advertising revenues and recover the capital expenditure. This approach saw mixed results, as contractors made most of their revenues from advertising and had no motivation to maintain the toilets or even keep them operational. More positively, the initiative demonstrated that toilet blocks can be run profitably. However, the challenge lies in designing effective BOT contracts and supervising them in a way that ensures the original purpose of the toilet is not lost.

Multiple stakeholders: Innovative approaches have also been tested in the community toilet block variety. Local NGOs mobilise residents and create what is termed as a Community Based Organisation (CBO). Land and capital investment is provided by the government while the CBO supervises the construction by a contractor and is responsible for operations and maintenance of the block post completion. The members of the CBO also utilise the facilities themselves. Another model involves an NGO working with a women’s Self Help Group, who manage the construction and operate the toilet on behalf of their community upon completion.

The disadvantage of both the above models is the difficulty in scaling such an arrangement given the multiple stakeholders involved, the necessity of community mobilisation and/or the training of community members which can be a long and somewhat uncertain process.

Portable toilets– government provision

The Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) has been manufacturing and deploying ‘mobile toilet vans’ over the last 15-16 years for large public events and across slums. The toilet vans are stationed within accessible distance to the slum community and connected either to the sewerage network of the city or to a septic tank that gets evacuated periodically. A local NGO is appointed to manage usage fee collections and maintenance of the toilet van. These units are usually constructed using metal sheets and are susceptible to rust and wear over time. As far as is known, this concept has not been scaled beyond the surrounding areas of the city.

Can private and portable intervention provide solutions at scale?

Despite the numerous attempts detailed above to ensure sanitation in slums, the problem remains at best only partially solved. It appears that scale and standardisation are the main hurdles, primarily due to the difficulty of obtaining permission to operate, harsh infrastructure situations and highly variable cultural and economic characteristics, as mentioned before. Many single blocks exist that are privately run or NGO run but, barring Sulabh, none have achieved scale while ensuring a standard quality of service.

In this scenario, private enterprises with high aspirations have started exploring the market in the last couple of years. The self-sufficient model of Eram and mains-free evacuation model of 3S SHRAMIK (SaraPlast Private Ltd) involve solutions that address the lack of sewerage systems and waste disposal infrastructure in general. Evacuation that does not depend on piped sewage overcomes a major hurdle, given that the Standing Committee on Urban Development recently observed that 4,861 out of 5,161 cities and towns in the country (as per 2001 census) do not have even a partial sewerage network@.

These two toilets types have additional advantages:

  • The 3S SHRAMIK portable toilet allows for quick set up of what could be seen as a temporary solution until slum rehabilitation and better city planning catches up
  • The impermanent nature of the 3S portable units also increases the chances of obtaining permission to service ‘non-notified’ or officially unrecognised slums, which frequently exist on disputed land and where the need is usually much higher
  • The significantly reduced capital cost per seat vis-à-vis brick and mortar toilets means these businesses can operate without initial monetary assistance from the government, which has otherwise been crucial to the financial viability of ‘user fee dependent’ PPP models
  • The durable nature of materials used in the construction of these toilets also results in lower infrastructure maintenance costs
  • The automated nature of the self- sustaining unit in the case of ERAM eliminates salary expense

Classification of solutions

Drawing from our consumer research and the solutions detailed above, we believe two broad parameters can be used to segment the market for a sanitation provider (assuming the necessary permissions are acquired). They are the strength of the required infrastructure and the ability or willingness of the consumer to pay.

The following matrix exhibits a rough matching of existing solutions to the resulting consumer divisions and also serves as a summary of the space.

When there is reasonable (medium) infrastructure, a toilet block is likely to be appropriate option – privately run for the high earners, government run for those on low-income. But where infrastructure is weak, the analysis suggests portable units are more appropriate. At the lowest income levels, this may still need to be subsidised by government (bottom right segment), but can be provided by private operators.

Policy cohesion and strong promotional communication are required

There are, however, many factors constraining the development of private provision. In our opinion, the most significant challenge for the space is cumbersome bureaucracy and the multitude of departments from whom a sanitation provider needs to obtain permission for setting up operations, and this too over and over again in each city and state.

The government must begin to structure and, more importantly, implement an overarching policy across states that would facilitate entry and reduce start up time for private players looking at this market. Alongside this, guidelines and regulation are required to keep a check on prices and prevent exploitation, given the vulnerable nature of the target segment.

The spread of toilet provisioning on its own is not enough to deliver the greatest health impact. Even one household practising open defecation can put the rest of the community at risk via transmission. Thus, given one’s improved health is not always a direct result of one’s own actions, it is difficult to implement improved sanitation to the extent it is needed. Promotional communication should be specially designed to put across this concept and mobilise settlements to act en mass for their collective benefit.This has resulted in the much talked about Total Sanitation Campaign instituted by the central government across the country.


The numerous challenges facing sanitation providers attempting to serve the urban slum market in India makes the task seem daunting. It is essential that it goes hand-in-hand with spreading awareness about the significant health and hence financial hazards that result from poor hygiene and inefficient waste management. A willingness to pay exists in these markets for what should be perceived as an essential good (along with clean water and electricity); the task at hand is to make the consumer, the government and all other stakeholders involved act more urgently towards reinforcing and fulfilling this perception.


*National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) – Conditions of Urban Slums in India 2008-09

^Ministry of Urban Development, as per 2001 census

#Water and Sanitation Program – Economics Impacts of Inadequate Sanitation in India, 2006

@Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India

Ratna Sinroja
Ratna Sinroja
Intellecap is committed to economic and social change brought about by using market-based, for profit solutions to development challenges. As part of the team, I am getting opportunities to develop domain expertise across our focus sectors,...

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