10 toilet designs that can actually work in rural India

One of the critical aspects of rural sanitation is to build loos that take into account climate, water, space and most importantly, culture.

A recent New York Times op-ed piece creatively titled “Bill Gates can’t build a toilet” by environmentalist and founder of Toilets For People, Jason Kass, says this about the Gates Foundation project to build toilets in rural areas: “the Gates Foundation has treated the quest to find the proper solution as it would a cutting-edge project at Microsoft: lots of bells and whistles, sky-high budgets and engineers in elite institutions experimenting with the newest technologies, thousands of miles away from their clients.” Rural sanitation is more than just building a toilet, but even that first step can be ineffective if it does not take into account relevant factors.

The Government of India spends 7000 crores a year just to build toilets, but it is true that the toilets commissioned to be built scarcely take into account the local conditions or cultures, are unaffordable despite the subsidy and often fall into disuse. Toilet designs need to factor in several conditions – from geography to water and culture – for them to be usable and viable. An India Water Portal study, for example, points to the fact that even popular low-cost toilets like pit latrines could lead to adverse environmental impact besides propagating manual scavenging, a human rights battle India has been fighting for over 5 decades.

 Gramalaya has been constructing toilets in rural India for over 2 and a half decades now and lists the following conditions as factors to be taken into account for toilets to become household and community-friendly:

• Affordability
• Space in the home
• Geographical conditions – soil/water table etc
• Cultural habits
• Availability of water/scarcity of water
• Availability of skilled or semi skilled manpower

In the battle for better sanitation for 600 million Indians who defecate in the open, a toilet that is well designed is a critical aspect. Here’s a look at toilet designs that can suit rural India:

1. Plinth level toilet with temporary superstructure

This is one of the simplest designs and it is best suited where space is a constraint. It is quite easy to empty filled pits, can be constructed within a day and cost investment is definitely on the lower side. The total cost of construction comes to about Rs. 1500. Superstructure can be made from locally available materials such as banana leaves, bamboo sticks and gunny bags.  It can be a simple solution for sanitation around festival places and during emergencies. Estimated cost of 1 toilet: Rs. 1500

2. Toilet only model with hollow bricks

The superstructure here is made of hollow bricks. This model is suitable for all purposes, it is comparatively low cost and is most suitable where space is limited. Estimated cost of 1 toilet: Rs. 5500

3. Toilet attached bathroom (w/ hollow bricks and no roof)

A multifunctional low cost structure, this toilet and bathroom design accommodates provision for water storage, bathing and washing facilities inside the toilet. Additionally, using water waste for kitchen garden is possible and most importantly it provides privacy for ablution, especially keeping in mind women and adolescent girls. Estimated cost of 1 toilet: Rs. 7257

4. Toilet only model (w/ concrete rings pit and roof)

It is a low cost design, especially suited for small areas, and provides privacy and safeguards during rainy season. Estimated cost of 1 toilet: Rs. 6875

5. Twin pit – Pour flush latrine

Slightly larger space may be needed to construct this toilet but the cost is still low. Having two pits is certainly an advantage as when the first pit gets filled up, the flow of excreta has to be diverted to the second pit. In this design, two leach pits are connected to one single pour-flush toilet. Twin-pit toilets have a high convenience – when emptying one pit, people use second pit. Estimated cost of 1 toilet: Rs. 7257

6. ECO-SAN toilets

This toilet design might be costly but prevents contamination of water sources and soil. Human waste can be composted and used as a natural fertilizer. Unlike other designs, emptying pits is not a requirement. This design is great in the areas where water logging and scarcity is a concern. It is most effective in coastal and rock areas, as it promotes soil fertility and crop production. Historically, such ecological methods of sanitations were utilized by the Romans, Chinese, in Mexico, Peru and Yemen. Some places which have excelled in this technology in the current age are Guangxi province, China; KfW, Frankfurt, Germany where they use vacuum toilets with provisions of grey water treatment and Tanum Municipality in Sweden. Ecosan was implemented in Haiti as part of the emergency relief effort following the 2010 earthquake. In India, these designs are notably used in Tamil Nadu where the Tamil Nadu State Government provides subsidies. Estimated cost of 1 toilet: Rs. 10,747

7. Bio-gas linked toilets

Talk about alternate energy alternatives and here is one.  This design offers support to convert waste matter to Bio-gas, a non-conventional energy source. The fuel generated can be used as local source for electricity, heat and light.  Also, the waste can be composted to Bio-manure which increases productivity and catalyses soil conservation. In 2012, UNICEF chose two districts in West Bengal to pilot this kind of design in India and approximately 19,000 Kg of methane gas that was produced from waste alone each day was converted to produce biogas.  UNICEF successfully piloted this program with a local NGO – Ramakrishna Mission Lokashiksha Parishad to implement this program at Medinipur district. Look at the Banka bio-loo model. Estimated cost of 1 toilet: Rs. 21, 167

8. Child friendly toilets

These toilets encourage proper hygiene habits from childhood and provide privacy for children. One can make it to look interesting with beautiful caricatures of pets and animals on the wall. Children are not scared to use these kinds of toilets. All of them possess accessible and easy provisions for Anal cleaning and hand washing facilities. As these are constructed adjacent to the community toilets, and maintenance is certainly easier. Estimated cost of 1 toilet: Rs. 18,000 – Rs. 22,000

9. School sanitary complex

School Sanitation is a tool for promoting better sanitation and water management for children. It aids in improving the school environment and privacy for school children is certainly ensured. This complex promotes proper hygiene behaviours from childhood. Operation and maintenance is taken care by school children and separate facilities are provided for urination and defecation. Estimated cost of 1 toilet: Rs. 50,000

10. Anganwadi Toilets

Created under the ‘Integrated Child Development Centres (ICDS) scheme’ the anganwadi toilets are believed to be a platform for behaviour change for the children by promoting hygiene behaviours from childhood. Child friendly door with a provision for opening from inside and outside of the toilet is available. Displays of pet animal pictures inside the wall create a friendly environment and hence children don’t fear using it.  Smallest toilet pan with 14 inches can be used and to maintain one foot height of water storing tub. Water tub should be easy to access for children for cleaning and washing. Kerala, Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are among the states that have cleanest Anganwadi toilets.

Cost estimates from Gramalaya’s ‘Toilet Technology guide for low cost toilets’. Pics courtesy: Wikipedia, Gramalaya and India Water Portal. Thanks to Gramalaya, India Water Portal and WTO for information on toilet design.

I am passionate about writing, travelling and social change especially in education sector. I have completed my PG Diploma in Broadcast and Digital Journalism. I currently work as Communication Associate with Quest Alliance. Its been three months since I joined and as part of my lifestyle I have promised I would travel as much as I can. And, I have been successful to keep this promise. I travel ev... more


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I am passionate about writing, travelling and social change especially in education sector. I have completed my PG Diploma in Broadcast and Digital Journalism. I currently work as Communication Associate with Quest Alliance. Its been three months since I joined and as part of my lifestyle I have promised I would travel as much as I can. And, I have been successful to keep this promise. I travel ev... more
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