Saturday, February 8, 2014

Walking into Forbidden Places

We were riding the Delhi metro when we became aware of dirty looks, and, oddly, all the other passengers were female. 

Then it dawned on us we had stumbled into the women-only coach. The fine for this infraction was higher than for riding on the roof, and it was being regularly enforced

The subway train was moving, we couldn't jump off. We fixed our eyes apologetically on the floor, while walking deliberately towards the next coach.

Another Forbidden Place

A few days later, with Dwight back to work in Minneapolis, I was being led through a busy women's community toilet block. The women were entering and emerging from the stalls, quite unfazed by my presence. The large room was bright, clean, and well maintained.

For the second time, I was avoiding eye contact with women while walking through a space. 

At the back of the building I was shown the anaerobic disposition of the product. Nothing was wasted: there was even a kitchen where women were cooking meals over bio-gas burners. 

The Mission

Earlier that afternoon, I had visited the adjacent Sulabh International Museum of Toilets, where I was connected with an engineer who works in the research and development facility of Sulabh International, an NGO. He explained the systems enthusiastically, making my convoluted journey to this Delhi suburb well worthwhile. 

We discussed the mission which brings safe sanitation to tens of millions every day. 

One of their core technologies is the dual-pit, pour-flush composting toilet. This is low-maintenance, low-technology, and can be built at a variety of price points. 

Even the poorest communities can adopt the technology.

As the engineer and I walked towards the bus stop where I would catch a bus back to central New Delhi, I asked how I could give a donation. He explained Sulabh does not accept donations from individuals: they work with private and government grants, and expect benefiting communities to provide some labor and materials.

Lessons Learned

I'm glad to come home from India with an optimistic story, rather than the usual visitor's critique. 

The visit reinforced my distaste for Western technocratic NGOs creating dependency on complex, high maintenance technologies. I'm skeptical of highly engineered initiatives like the Gates Foundation's Reinventing the Toilet challenge that was announced around the time I visited India in 2011. 

Sometimes money can get in the way of a solution. The locally financed, locally sourced, low-tech solutions of Sulabh seem respectful and sustainable. 

Toilet symbol:
Two-pit toilet photograph: Sulabh International
I was not carrying a camera when I visited the places described in this blog entry: this was probably for the best. I always use my own photographs in posts, unless attributed otherwise.

No comments:

Post a Comment