Facilitating social transformation: An NGO's experiment with communities and toilets
1 May 2015
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The mere presence of toilets does very little to change sanitation behaviour in the absence of community ownership and participation. A decade ago, this was more or less the story of Tiruchirapalli, one of the least hygienic cities in the country then. Poor maintenance and the general lack of initiative rendered most of the community toilets constructed by the Tiruchirapalli Corporation useless across the city.

The city and its slums

Tamil Nadu’s fourth largest urban agglomeration, Tiruchirapalli, popularly known as Trichy, has 211 slums approved by the government while an additional 75 remained unapproved. Despite the presence of the odd toilet complex, open defecation was rampant in most parts. Needless to mention, the problems stemming from the lack of proper sanitation led to a spurt in water borne diseases in many of these places.

Trichy based NGO Gramalaya, in association with Water Aid took upon itself to renovate the abandoned toilets and set up an Operation and Maintenance (O&M) system with the support of the local community.

They started out with a need-assessment survey to figure out the best possible solution to deal with the crisis. Though the construction of new individual as well as community toilets was mooted, stress was laid on the importance of appropriate O&M to ensure long-term sustainability of these structures.

New toilets were constructed with financial support from Water Aid on land provided by the Trichy city corporation. Along with the conversion of dry toilets into pour flush variants in many neighbourhoods, water connections were also provided for the sanitary complexes.

Flower power - SHE-Team

As the City Corporation was in short supply of manpower, women from the locality were given the responsibility of caring for the community sanitation complexes in the slums. Gramalaya started out by getting the women together to form small groups of 15-20 members each. Members of the different groups came together to form a larger Sanitation and Hygiene Education team or the SHE-Team.

The SHE-Team was in charge of planning and monitoring all aspects of the sanitation programme in addition to creating awareness about the benefits of good personal and community hygiene. Community participation was ensured effortlessly as more than half of the slum residents were part of the SHGs and they took it upon themselves to make sure their initiative was successful.

Taking the knowledge forward, Gramalaya expanded their work across slums in Trichy by organizing Women's Action for Village Empowerment or WAVE Federations. These federations were composed of both SHE-Team members as well as other SHGs in the region promoted by the Tamil Nadu Corporation for Development of Women.


Prior to Gramalaya’s entry, most of the corporation’s community toilet facilities were open free of cost to the public. Keeping the long term financial viability in mind, the complexes started functioning on a pay & use basis. One member from SHG team would be appointed as the care taker for the day on a rotation basis.

SHE-Teams each had a bank account into which they deposited funds collected from the households. Income and expenses records of the sanitation complexes were scrupulously maintained. The responsibility of maintaining both the toilets as well as the bank accounts was given to the local teams on a cyclic basis. The teams then deposited the profits into a common pool used mainly to fund awareness creation and taking up small maintenance work.

Engaging man, woman and child

Enthused by the positive changes, local men who were once averse to the idea of operating and maintaining community toilets became avid supporters. Local Associations for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (AWASH) were created along with children’s groups.

At the end of the programme eight community toilets were constructed, four community toilets were renovated in three slums and over 250 household toilets were constructed with credit support awarded to the women SHGs by Water Partners International, USA. The sustainability phase of the project was supported by Bangaluru based Arghyam Trust. Gramalaya has since withdrawn and the project continues to function smoothly, thanks to the continued interest and participation of the community members.

A sense of worth and ownership are among the many intangible positive after-effects the programme was able to generate. Prompted by the successes of the endeavour, the Trichy Corporation handed over the maintenance of over half of the community toilets in the city to SHGs.

Facilitating healthy social transformation

Going beyond just finances and targets, the programme guided the unfolding of a social transformation. Support from the city corporation, credit assistance from donors, assurances from the local NGO and the determination of locals to put an end to open defecation provided the perfect setting for a metamorphosis.

Apart from the obvious sanitation goals, the programme helped bring the strength and dynamism of women to the fore. Women emerged from being mere spectators to spirited commanders in their own right. Rising to the occasion, they donned leadership roles, transforming both the physical and mental landscape of their neighbourhoods. The synergistic success of the venture is, therefore, the success of every woman leader, every toll-collector and every sanitation preacher who went door to door persuading people to use the latrine.

The city is now an acknowledged front runner in providing sustainable sanitation solutions for its residents. The Government of Tamilnadu has incorporated Trichy’s experience in community-led sanitation as a model for other cities to follow and replicate.

Now placed sixth in the National Urban Sanitation Rankings, Tiruchirapalli has truly redeemed itself by rising right from its ashes. 

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