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Toilets stink. There is no getting around the fact that toilets are icky places. Especially in places like India where the line between clean and dirty is so firmly drawn. There will be nothing that crosses over that line. Toilets firmly fall into the category of dirty. And are kept so. 

Not for all of course. But as the current campaign against open defecation highlights — open defecation damages health and stunts growth of children. It is of course unhygienic, ugly, filthy and smelly. We don’t want to walk through roads that are lined with shit, flies buzzing over the piles heading threateningly towards us.. ugly enough for you? People live like that, and it must be made better. 

But would you, honestly, hand on heart, even step into the tiny stinking toilets that they make? The ones they have in schools? I wouldn’t. Probably because my hands would be busy making sure no part of me touches anything and thanking myself for having worn high heels or sturdy shoes that day. Do I sound supercilious? I intended to. Because this is what ‘patronising’ does to design. It is not okay that a toilet in a good home or a starred hotel is designed for cleanliness but a toilet in a village is not designed to succeed. 

It is not okay that the toilets designed for those who are poor are boxes with doors and holes in the ground. It is not okay that these are not easy to clean. It is not okay that frugal design must mean poor design. And yes, that pun was intended. 

Many have been ridiculed for saying that Indian village people prefer to defecate in the open. It is not okay to preach to others before figuring out their needs. The wisdom of the crowd deserves respectful attention — they must have good reason. Would anyone ever prefer to walk a distance compromising their privacy and safety if they had a better option? Would people line up along the side of the road or railway tracks if there were better facilities available? The challenge now is to provide better toilets that are not boxes of shit — pardon the expression. The challenge is to provide a dignified option that naturally lends itself to sustainable maintenance and cleaning. 

(Oh, shall I start you off? How about the floor of the toilet not be solid, but be a concrete grid that people step on, so that extra water is not retained on the surface. Where should the water go? To a sloping second floor below the grid that can join the drain/filter and seep into groundwater. You have the space to do this — the toilet pipe needs at least 8 inches to 2 feet of clearance, so you can create a false floor and a sharply sloping solid floor beneath it.) 

A self cleaning toilet? On a budget? Am I kidding? Nope. That is why it is a design challenge. Up to you, frugal innovators an designers now, the ball is in your court! What does a good toilet need? Drainage, privacy, water (yes, India), ventilation, self cleaning design, safety and nudges to best practices. Frugal Design — are you up to the challenge?