Coming soon: A map and masterplan for Chennai toilets

Public toilets mapping in Chennai

An e-toilet installed in Mylapore, Chennai
E-toilet installed outside Nageswara Rao Park, Mylapore. Picture by Meenakshi Ramesh

The lack of enough accessible public toilets has long been an issue in Chennai. Lessons from the pandemic and the emphasis on hygiene has made clean toilets all the more important for the city’s many residents. Recycle Bin, an NGO, has multiple ideas to make Chennai’s public toilets accessible and clean, in addition to a larger toilet masterplan at the policy level.

Citizen Matters spoke to Ganga Dileep C, Founder-CEO and Principal Architect and Urban Designer at Recycle Bin on the various programmes in place and the possible roadmap for change for Chennai public toilets. 

What does Recycle Bin do?

Recycle Bin is a design-oriented firm. There are ideas in domains such as sanitation, waste management and even climate change that are yet to be mainstreamed. We take ideas from that recycle bin and work on them. We started operations in Kerala and have been active in Chennai for the past nine months. 

We work with the government and with agencies such as the UN as consultants. Some of the areas we have worked on include concepts of responsible tourism and how to induce behavioural change in the public through changes in built infrastructure. We apply design as a tool for infrastructure and relationship with the public in terms of social behaviour. 

Poster for chennai toilet festival
The toilet festival is being organised in collaboration with various partners. Pic: Recycle Bin

Why the focus on toilets?

During our travels across Tamil Nadu, the team came across many interesting aspects of usage of public toilets, such as cultural issues and issues with ownership. 

What we noticed was that despite having a strong national movement on sanitation, we do not take into account the qualitative aspects. We see numbers increasing but we are yet to have toilets which are accessible in all senses. 

Women avoid drinking water while travelling because we are not sure about how sanitary the public toilets available for use are. 

As an architect our first solution to this issue was that if the toilets are designed better it would work better. But later on we realised that this is not an issue that can be solved by one discipline. It requires multiple disciplines to come together and the participation of the public on the other side to create change. 


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What were your learnings from working on the issue in Kerala?

The project on public toilets first took shape in Trivandrum in 2017. We wanted to bring multiple viewpoints into account and address qualitative issues as well. So we made an app. With the help of the app and public participation in toilet mapping we documented around 150 toilets. 

We even included toilets that are not necessarily built and maintained by the government but also ones in places such as hospitals or hotels that can be used by the public. We then prepared a comprehensive report based on the information gathered. 

What are your plans for Chennai?

When we arrived in Chennai we engaged in a project with King’s College, London, looking at toilets as disconnected infrastructure from a gendered perspective. We have entered into an MOU with the Greater Chennai Corporation in addressing issues related to public toilets. 

This is an issue that everyone is unitedly looking for change in the current scenario. Since there is no set model that exists, we have to look at new ways to engage the public and keep our toilets clean. 

Our main collaborators in this effort are the NGO Cheer and IHE Delft, Netherlands through the Dutch Ministry. 

We have to involve everyone from the top government body to the public at the grassroots level. On the one end, it is a question of policy and operation and maintenance and on the other it is about cultivating behavioural change. 

We have to step away from ideas we take for granted, such as that public toilets will be vandalised. When we notice how we behave differently in different settings, we can modify that behaviour. When we are inside a toilet, that is the most honest state we get to be in. We can be anything inside it. 

So far with the schemes we have had, the toilet is seen as an engineered product. If you look at places like Ethiopia, toilets come under the purview of the Ministry of Health, where they are a key stakeholder and this changes the entire approach to toilets. Here we spend 95% of the budget in construction and increasing the number of toilets. While that is important, our emphasis on qualitative parameters has fallen short. 

What is Chennai’s main challenge with toilets and sanitation?

Chennai’s main challenge with regard to sanitation is problems around water management. This is to do with both availability of water and issues with the drainage system. Once the study is complete we will get a clearer picture, but the sense we have is that many toilets are not usable due to lack of water. Other issues are to do with drainage and also the quantum of water used. Behavioural aspects are universal and it is also a challenge in Chennai.  


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What are the events and activities that have been lined up as part of your engagement in Chennai?

We have curated a fellowship programme where applicants from multiple backgrounds can join and contribute towards making public toilets accessible. They will go through an initial round of orientation which is one week long. We have 20 experts working in various areas of sanitation who will serve as mentors for the fellows. The fellows will learn from this experience.

Alongside the fellowship, we will be running a ‘mapathon’ with volunteers from across Chennai. This is where the app, called Kakkoos, comes in. With the app, we can geotag locations of public toilets and record information about their numbers, whether they are disabled-friendly, and photographs can be added as well. 

Another key aspect is the ability to rate toilets in terms of accessibility, maintenance, privacy, hygiene and security. We are looking to cover public toilets and all other toilet facilities that the public can use such as toilets in hospitals, libraries or any other toilets accessible to the public. This will also cover community toilets. We are looking at mapping more than 1000 toilets over three days. 

The data collected will be used to help the public identify the toilets. The app will be accessible to the general public who can use and rate the toilets. The rating will be monitored to see which toilets have ratings that have gone up or down and communicate this with the Greater Chennai Corporation.

With the help of the fellows and through other collaborations such as one with Srishti School of Design, we will be evolving a toilet masterplan for the city. The broader output is to look at making Chennai one of the cities that has widespread accessible toilets. 

The few efforts that have been lined up to this end will be spread out in the coming months. We have the fellowship from the 22nd-27th of this month. On the 30th, 31st and 1st is the mapathon across Chennai. On the 2nd and 3rd we have the International Toilet Festival which also has a toilet expo.  

Here, innovations in the sanitation space will be showcased. Models from various startups which are yet to be part of the mainstream market will present their products. The summit will also see an event with all the officials and MLAs. There will be a token of respect accorded to the sanitation workers.

What do you hope to do with the data gathered in this exercise?

With the data collected, we are looking at the toilet as the product of many broader layers. For example, this would integrate the water allocation plans of the city, the waste management plans of the city and larger goals of accessibility that the city is aiming to achieve, looking at whether we have toilets for disabled individuals and toilets for trans persons. 

With this data, when we are mapping all this in a single map it helps those who are stakeholders to have a 360 degree view of the issues. Right now the information that is accessible to the decision-makers is fragmented in silos. 

Using this information we can assess water availability, drainage issues and waste management. This information will also be useful to chart an operation and management strategy. We will be working with the Greater Chennai Corporation in this and we are hopeful of a fruitful collaboration. 

By September, with the data in hand we will be evolving a toilet masterplan for the city. These agenda items, while vital, don’t usually find space in the masterplan.

To learn more about the fellowship and Toilet Festival, visit here.

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About Aruna Natarajan 179 Articles
Aruna is an Associate Editor at Citizen Matters. She has a BA in Economics and a PG Diploma in Journalism. She has also worked in a think-tank on waste management policy and with a non-profit in sport for development. She writes on civic issues, governance, waste, commute and urban policy. She tweets at @aruna_n29.