Behavioral Change Needed: Why Only 17% Of The Toilets In These Schools Are Usable?
Source : Reap Benefit | Image Courtesy: impatientoptimists
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SANITATION: Thinking beyond construction numbers

The Swachh Vidyalay Abhiyan, which branched out from Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, aimed to take the agenda of its parent campaign to all government schools in the country. One of the highlights of its launch was the ambitious promise of completing 4.4 lakh functional and usable toilets with Operations & Maintenance systems in place within ONE year. Today the government claims that this target has been achieved , although without an independent and comprehensive audit to prove so. With not enough credible information available – we turn to data from the field for a reality check.

Our team recently studied 63 government schools in Karnataka with the aim of collecting information about amongst other attributes, sanitation. Here are some of our findings:

The Issue of Separate Toilets for Girls and Boys

In our study, of the total of 63 schools out of which 58 are co-educational, 7% did not have separate toilets for girls and boys. This is very encouraging news since it shows that a large majority of schools have the provision of separate toilets for girls and boys. It also mirrors the findings from the Swacchta status report which shows that the number of toilets, including separate toilets for girls and boys in government schools, are indeed increasing across the country .


In 2014, separate toilets were mandated in all states by the Supreme Court under the provisions of the RTE act . Separate toilets, especially in primary schools and beyond, provide the necessary component of privacy and safety for adolescent and pubescent girls. Additionally, separate toilets help to reduce incidents of harassment, bullying, and molestation cases, for both boys and girls, which often arise in situations of open defecation and urination . A lack of separate toilets thus understandably has huge implications on attendance and drop-out rates.

How many students use one toilet? Pupil to Toilet Ratio

The Swachh Vidyalaya document also puts forth the minimum ratio of number of urinals and toilets to the number of students wherein it mandates

  • 1 urinal per 13 students and
  • 1 toilet per 40 students .

But in reality, there is one urinal per 47 girls and one toilet per 65 girls and one urinal per 49 boys and one toilet per 63 boys

  • one urinal per 47 girls and
  • one toilet per 65 girls and
  • one urinal per 49 boys and
  • one toilet per 63 boys

The reality on the ground states that the average ratio for these 63 government schools of Karnataka has to get better.


Stress on sanitation facilities:

Having separate urinals and toilets makes maintenance easier and reduces the stress on sanitation infrastructure. It caters to the reality that a toilet is used more to urinate and lesser to defecate. Also building urinals and toilets separately saves space, resources, and money. A skewed ratio, as our experience on the field, has revealed, can also lead to an increase in misuse and damage of sanitation facilities. It has been observed that there is a huge stress on the limited sanitation facilities during peak hours of common usage, such as break times, wherein they are often left unclean after usage and also sometimes vandalized.

To use or not to use – Usability and its definition

We now arrive at the pivotal issue of usability. Here at Reap benefit we understand that the availability of sanitation facilities cannot be expressed in number of toilets alone, sanitation needs to be viewed as a continuous experience. So even though it was heartening to see that all of the 63 government schools had toilets, deeper observation led us to conclude that only 17% of the toilets were ‘completely usable’.


Based on our experience on the field we have been able to curate a list of attributes that together make for a ‘completely usable’ toilet, these are:

  1. The toilet must be clean: Basic cleanliness includes no feces, urine or other waste on the floor or on the pan of the toilet. Also includes intact and clean taps, buckets and mugs and toilet floor.
  2. The toilets must have sufficient access to water: Since most toilets are of the pour-flush design, they need significant amounts of water to be kept clean and functional. A conservative estimate of the sufficient amount of water is at a minimum of four and a half liters per student per day .
  3. The toilets must offer privacy: As discussed earlier on, a toilet provides the necessary component of privacy which open defecation and urination cannot. However, a toilet with a broken or non-existent door or roof, broken walls and broken door locks will not be considered private and safe.
  4. Toilets must have adequate ventilation and lighting: While it is difficult to quantify sufficient ventilation and lighting required for a toilet, a minimum standard here can be decided as; every toilet must have at least one window/outlet per toilet cubicle to let air circulate thereby assist in freeing the toilet from unpleasant smells. Similarly, there needs to be a natural/artificial source of lighting inside the bathroom so that the contents of the bathroom are visible for usage after the door is closed.

By this minimum standard of ‘complete usability’ of a toilet, the below infographic shows why only 17% of the schools had usable toilets.4

Of all statistics shown above, the most common factor across all unusable toilets was that they were unclean. This brings us to a very fundamental question. What does it take to nudge institutions and people to take ownership of and maintain a facility that satisfies the basic human needs of urination and defecation? The answer to the question may seem elusive as several programmes have repeatedly tried various types of interventions for many years, however, there are solutions that can have an impact.

At Reap Benefit, we believe that small and tangible solutions can help make completely functional toilets a reality. Therefore working with youngsters and involving them in taking ownership of their own spaces is a part of the answer. Another part is facilitating the realization that water is a limited resource and supporting students to use the resource of water conservatively, be it by optimizing handwash stations or flush tanks to use at least 30% less water, installing waterless urinals that saves 80% water or installing grey water and drip irrigation systems. An essential part of the answer is also that, we need to realize that there is only so much we can depend on the government for. It is imperative to understand that the right to safe sanitation also comes with the responsibility of maintaining the facility that provided it in the first place. If we can change and grow to be individuals and groups who can take responsibility for our actions and own our common spaces while nudging others to do the same, the day when all toilets in the country are usable, be it in government schools, public spaces and highways, will not be very far. So the next time we use a public or common toilet, we could take small but significant steps like making sure we flush after use, keep the toilet seat dry, or report to a maintenance staff or helpline if we spot or cause a problem rather than ignoring the issue and moving on.

It is in the nature of maintenance to be a challenging task because it is an ongoing and repetitive activity. Additionally, even one instance of short term negligence can lead to long term discard of the facility, which then will lead to repercussions we are all aware of. Recently in Hubli, we came across the Government Primary and High School of Suttagatti where girl students have taken full responsibility of their toilet premises. Through a series of pre-defined duties and rules of maintenance they have been able to keep their bathrooms clean and their fellow students healthy. Through their example, they have been able to highlight that behavioral change and a stress on continuous & complete usability are critical to the success of sanitation programs. With individuals and groups like these maybe the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan will become a reality and translate into Safe and Sustainable Sanitation for all, some day.

Reap Benefit builds the next generation of problem solvers, by involving youth in developing skills, local data, and solutions to solve local environment and civic problems.

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Editor : The Logical Indian