Social Enterprise Showcase: Creating the demand for toilets – Gramalaya

S Damodar from Gramalaya says that unless more important than building toilets is the need to educate people on why they need them.


In their earliest project, Gramalaya worked to provide hand pumps to a community whose only source of water were dug-wells. Despite their intervention, people were still at risk due to open defecation affecting their water sources. When they built toilets for the community, they realized they needed hygiene education for things most people take for granted, like proper hand washing and maintenance of toilets.

This is why Gramalaya sees toilets as more than ‘four walls with a water closet’; they realize that along with ‘hardware’ (the toilets and water), ‘software’ (cleanliness, demand for toilets, maintenance) too needs to be in place to make toilets work.

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We spoke to S Damodaran, Founder – Chairman of Gramalaya, on how they have succeeded in providing sustainable toilets in many parts of Tamil Nadu.

The origins

Even in college, Damodaran was actively involved in social work, organizing health and environmental camps in villages, distributing food, etc. Straight out of college, he worked at Antyodaya for three years, until he and his friends decided to start Gramalaya in 1987.

With their earliest work, Gramalaya realized that clean drinking water, cleanliness, sanitation, hygiene, and health go hand in hand. Today, they have evolved a comprehensive strategy on how to work in a community, promoting SMART toilets that are socially, culturally, economically and environmentally acceptable.

Gramalaya works with the entire community, particularly women SHGs in rural areas and urban slums. Their activities include health and hygiene education, promotion of SHGs among rural, urban and tribal women, construction of low-cost and environmentally sustainable toilets and safe water supply.

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Gramalaya’s work is primarily funded by WaterAid and water.org and they make sure their work is financially sustainable and have their own MFI (microfinance Institution) Guardian to give toilet loans.

Gramalaya has been selected Government of India as a National Key Resource Centre for sanitation for three states (Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka) for providing training and capacity building to government officials and NGOs.

The numbers

Gramalaya has, over the last 25 years built 1,00,000 toilets in rural and urban Tamil Nadu with government, donor, and community support impacting more than 5,00,000 lives.

GUARDIAN, its MFI wing, has reached 60,275 families through loan for toilets and water with a total loan amount of Rs. 51.25 Crores from 2008 to October 2014.

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How they work

A lot of sanitation ideas that are the norm today were pioneered and shown to work by Gramalaya.

  1. Through their MFI GUARDIAN, they have shown that toilet loans too (and not just loans for income generating activities) will be repaid. GUARDIAN’s Loans can be availed to construct and renovate toilets. Toilet loans are now given by 20 leading MFIs including Grameen Koota, Basix, ESAF, etc. and are now under Priority Sector Lending.
  2. They successfully implement their programs through women SHGs that were earlier conceptualized only for savings and thrift.
  3. Gramalaya does not have a one-size-fits-all model and has implemented various toilet models depending on the terrain, space and water availability and spending capacity. For example, they have separate child-friendly toilet models.
  4. They understand that if the community is not involved in the toilet, it won’t work. Before building the toilet(s) they involve the community, tell them about the implications of Open defecation, and make sure the community wants toilets, knows how to maintain toilets and basic hygiene and are willing to pay for the toilet.
  5. Community Toilets are notorious for being hard to maintain. While Gramalaya prefers individual toilets over community toilets, they construct community toilets in cases where there is no alternative. The toilets are maintained through SHGs and these toilets are financially sustainable and well-maintained. Even now, 13 years after construction, their community toilets in the Trichy slums are in good condition. Even the World Bank has acknowledged that the Trichy Model for community toilets works.
  6. Instead of subsidizing the toilet entirely, they have a revolving loan fund to cycle the money after repayments. As Damodaran says, “There is not enough subsidy to give everyone and it’s not sustainable either.”

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Making the chain from demand to use of toilets work

There are several reports that toilets are built but are unused, turned into store-rooms or are now defunct. Yet, Gramalaya has been successful with toilet construction, use and maintenance, mainly through its involvement of the community through the entire process.

Damodaran says, “Changing the behaviour before you even start construction is important. Demand should come from the people and should not be driven from top down or just for the sake of spending grant money.”

Even in their own project sites, Damodaran has seen cases where people prefer OD to using a toilet. So he reiterates the importance of proper hygiene education and involving the entire community (not only men or only women).

They have what they call ‘ignition process’ – where people come together and talk about sanitation and a transect walk followed by the ignition speech – where they go to the open defecation sites and make the connection between ill-health, health expenditure, and open defecation. The demand for a toilet has to come from the people themselves, they never force people to have a toilet.

Gramalaya has found that children are excellent hygiene ambassadors, making sure people use toilets, keep it clean, wash their hands, etc.

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Plans for the future

They now work in 5 districts in TN, and are revisiting their strategy to explore the possibilities of expanding beyond TN. But Damodaran is clear that they can’t work everywhere as the implementing organization and are  happy to train other MFIs or NGOs to work for sanitation and work with them to reach our country’s sanitation goal.

Biggest challenge

Damodaran says the biggest challenges in this space are finance (though it’s changing now) and technical expertise (there are many players but not all know the right toilet technologies). Damodaran ends with saying he hopes the Swach Bharat Mission takes off beyond posing with brooms in clean streets or indoors to a large scale campaign to achieve sanitation which can actually save lives. He said that making sure that 100 million toilets are built and used and maintained would take all the help it can get (not just financial) and he looks forward to help from CSR funds, microfinance funds, and priority sector lending.


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