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Non-profit wins $300,000 Google prize to make India's first open-defecation free city

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A slum resident in Mumbai, Maharashtra uses a makeshift toilet that opens into the water below, where children swim, in this May 12, 2006 file photo. (Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

For every story about India's coming of age as a world power, there is another one about poop.

Specifically, sanitation continues to be a public-health problem for the country of 1.1 billion. More than half of all homes do not have toilets, according to the latest census figures. Over the past decade, the number of homes with toilets has actually slipped by 11 per cent.

Last year, Jairam Ramesh, the minister for sanitation, pledged to make India an open defecation free nation within 10 years. It's a heady challenge. Just 10 per cent of the 250,000 villages in the country are free of open defecation, which links closely to security issues for women, and potential infections.

Now, an India-based NGO is promising to create India's first open defecation free city.
Shelter Associates has won a $300,000 award from Google to build at least 500 individual toilets in Sangli, a city of 500,0000 in Maharashtra state.

"The city presents an interesting canvas as parts of it is not covered with sewage lines which gives us the opportunity to explore bio-toilet technologies which are yet to be tested sufficiently in the urban sanitation context," said Pratima Joshi, an official with Shelter Associates. "This is in complete contrast with Pune city  with a population of over 3 million but a 97 per cent coverage of sewer lines across the city including slums."

For the past seven years, Shelter Associates has provided more than 1,600 families with individual toilets in slums of Pune and Sangli.

"Without exception, they are maintained well and in most cases have been upgraded," Joshi said. "Once the families get used to having their own facility, they will never use a community toilet nor will they defecate in the open. It is our observation that even when they rebuild their tin shacks with permanent material, they invest in an individual toilet."

Shelter Associates is no stranger to Google. I visited Sangli in 2011 to write about how Google Earth was being used to make life better in the city's slums. The government was using Google Earth to resettle residents of 22 slums that were demolished to make way for road-widening projects and other development.

After mapping Sangli’s congested areas, Google Earth was used to match slums that have to be demolished with other slums that are relatively close by and potential relocation sites.

Shelter Associates won its cash even though it didn't actually win the Google-hosted contest, called the Google Impact Challenge. The contest had four winners, who received about $600,000 apiece (one of the winners was determined by a public vote.) The three runners up each received about half that much.

Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at The Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead


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