Towards an Open Defecation Free Ujjain

5 min read

On a cold day in January 2015, the Commissioner of Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh, Dr Ravindra Pastor (IAS), was reading a newspaper article on field trials by WaterAid India (WAI) and University of Delaware on a new toilet technology. Incidentally at that time, Dr Pastor was also up against the challenge of organising the Simhastha Mahakumbh Mela in the city in 2016, especially addressing the potential sanitation challenges that the Mela would pose.

The month-long Simhastha Kumbh Mela, organised on the banks of the Kshipra in Ujjain, came to a close in May 2016. One of the world’s biggest religious congregations, it is estimated to have attracted over 50 million (5 crore) visitors. In a quest for sustainable solutions to make the Simhastha and the city of Ujjain open defecation free, Dr Pastor invited WAI and its partner Bhartiya Grameen Mahila Sangh (BGMS) to collaborate with the Ujjain Nagar Palika Nigam (UNPN).

Towards an ODF Ujjain: the beginnings

Our foray into Ujjain was part of a larger journey of change to make the city open defecation free (ODF) by 2017. We identified underprivileged families without toilets and included them in a list of eligible beneficiaries under the SBM (Urban) programme. Community mobilisation for more toilet usage and improved hygiene behaviour was next. Above all, we took into consideration the concerns and fears of the citizens post the 2015 monsoon floods. The twin-leach pit design was therefore unviable for a city with a high water table such as Ujjain. There was also the matter of poorly constructed existing septic tanks, and disposal of effluents in open drains near homes increasing the risk of infection and disease outbreaks. The alternatives therefore were toilet technologies like anaerobic baffled reactors and bio digesters which consider factors like geo-hydrology, sustainability, financial ability and aspirations, thereby improving chances of implementation and usage.

To help people, masons, and programme implementers understand how these technologies work, a demonstration was held on the UNPN premises. A team of masons was also trained on construction methods. The UNPN further included an incentive of Rs 13,600 per toilet to enable beneficiaries to construct toilets. The key focus of our work in Ujjain remains on mobilising communities towards improved hygiene behaviour, triggering a demand for sanitation, and linking the marginalised with appropriate programmes and resources to accelerate toilet construction in Ujjain.

Tackling Sanitation Challenges at the Simhastha

In contrast to our long term approach, the sheer scale, duration, and the expected visitor inflow of the Kumbh was one of the biggest challenges we faced. With the support of Dr Pastor and the UNPN officials, a comprehensive assessment of the existing facilities at the Simhastha was carried out. First, a poorly constructed septic tank in a public toilet with 20 seats near the main bathing area of Ram Ghat was converted into a bio-digester. This was based on a technology developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation, and can function between extreme temperatures of -50 to 60°C using anaerobic bacteria to decompose human waste into water and gas.

Next, to establish it as a model public toilet in the heart of the Kumbh area, a functional hand washing station and a bathing facility, a sanitary napkin vending machine, and an incinerator for disposing the napkins safely were also set up.

Hot air balloons floated by WaterAid India at different locations to guide people to the nearest toilet, India, 2016.
Thirteen balloons were floated near the toilet complexes to guide people to the nearest toilets during day and night.
Image: WaterAid/Prashanth Vishwanathan

At the Kumbh, our key focus was towards motivating behavioural change, adopting safe menstruation practises, and hand washing. we designed, and rolled out an innovative Information, Education and Communication campaign on WASH with support from BGMS and UNPN around the theme of ‘Swacch Simhastha, Swasth Hum’ (Clean Simhastha, Healthy Us). For this campaign, 13 hot air balloons which light up at night, were floated over or near public toilets to guide people easily towards them. Further, display walls with different WASH messages, an IEC stall with televised messages and canopy stalls were also set up to spread information and awareness among the visitors to the Mela. The Kala Mandal Street Theatre group from Jhabua town performed more than 40 interactive street plays highlighting different aspects of WASH in different locations in Ujjain during the Mela.

We also set up two Loo with a View toilets at the Simhastha. First implemented at the Glastonbury Festival by WaterAid UK last year, these toilets continue to be a runaway hit there and were very popular at this year’s Glastonbury Festival as well that just concluded last week. The Loo with a View toilets are covered on three sides with a one way mirror on the door that permits the person inside to see everyone outside. The toilet is designed to raise awareness, and provide an experience of what life must be like for millions of people who have no choice but to defecate outdoors. At the Kumbh, the Loo with a View toilets were inaugurated by H.H. Swami Chidanand Saraswati, Co-founder of The Global Interfaith WASH Alliance.


People que to use Loo with a View toilet. WaterAid/Prashanth Vishwanathan

Incidentally, footage and photographs on our work at Simhastha were displayed at Glastonbury this year to showcase the sanitation connections and challenges that come with organising any large festival and how cross learnings can be enabled through that. From that freezing morning in January 2015 to Glastonbury in June 2016, the quest for an ODF Ujjain has been a long journey, one full of immense learning for WAI and its partners. But the work has only begun, and to achieve our 2017 target, we only aim to strive harder in the coming months.

Puneet Srivastava is Manager - Policy (Urban WASH and Climate Change) at WaterAid India.