Case Study: Majnu Ka Tila Women's Toilet
Updated: Jul 12
After a few weeks of searching for a location for our women’s toilet installation, the BasicShit team settled on a site: the Pakistani Hindu Refugee Camp in the Majnu Ka Tila area, right near the Majnu ka Tila Gurudwara. The lead agency tasked with overseeing this camp is Humanitarian Aid International. When we walked into this camp, we immediately noticed the defunct toilet block to our left.
These toilets, as shown in Images A and B, were in such poor condition that they could not be safely used by anyone in the camp. The waste had filled up in the pits below to the point that it was accumulated at the top of the latrine, where flies were hovering around it. This poses an extreme health risk, as the constant movement of flies between human waste to our sources of food and drinking water enables the spread of fecal pathogens and bacteria, which transmit things like typhoid fever, dysentery, and cholera to us.
The Yamuna River, which runs right behind the Majnu Ka Tila refugee camp, is badly polluted with untreated sewage. According to Down to Earth, Delhi releases more than 2,000 million liters per day of waste water into the river. The inability of the city’s sewage treatment facilities to handle and treat Delhi’s sewage safely means that much of it gets discharged into our rivers and bodies of water. The sewage treatment plants that exist are capital and power intensive to operate, face machinery and power breakdowns, and get flooded during the rains. Without reliably operable treatment plants, the creation of sewage poses a huge environmental and public health disaster.
Sewage is created through the mixing of water and human waste. BasicShit’s Humble Toilet avoids this. Our dry composting system does not generate any sewage, as the toilet relies on a deposit of sawdust overtop of waste instead of water to flush. The waste is able to dry out quickly, as its water content is absorbed by the sawdust. Other earth materials like dirt, ashes, charcoal, and dead leaves can also be deposited into the toilet, as these materials will kill out the odor-causing bacteria and the dangerous pathogens found in human waste. The result is a safe to handle compost, ready to use on land. The pit below the toilet will not fill quickly, does not require frequent emptying, and does not produce any harmful sewage. In areas where sewage treatment is uncertain, such as at this installation site, BasicShit’s Humble Toilet provides a functional and sustainable solution.
It was evident that the existing toilets in the camp were not being maintained by the government as they should have been. Pit latrine toilets only function in the long run when they either use two chambers to allow the collected waste time to decompose safely, or they get emptied of their fecal sludge frequently so they can continue being used. Clearly, these toilets were not using a two chamber system, and they were not being reliably emptied. Most likely, its sewage contents were ending up in the Yamuna.
Additionally, anyone walking into the toilet block could see that there was fecal waste spreading around the toilets on the ground, posing another risk as stray dogs and barefooted kids walk through the area constantly.
Although some of the camp residents had better toilets in the home areas, as seen in Image C, it was clear to us immediately that this was a location that could generally benefit from one of our toilets, and it became even clearer as we spoke with residents of the camp. They pointed us to the back of the camp, near the Yamuna River, where there was a group of about fifteen people plus children living out of four or five rooms. Most of them told us they had been there for ten years.
Some women told us that they face a lot of difficulty when they have the urge to go to the toilet, and often end up running to go outside near the street. They said that when they do this, they face all kinds of verbal abuse and taunting. They talked about having even more difficulty when they get their periods every month, as they lack period products and a clean and safe place to practice menstrual hygiene. They shared that their kids often have stomach issues and pains and are compelled to also openly defecate due to the lack of functioning toilets.
Another issue we learned about in the camps was the difficulty in obtaining clean drinking water. We watched as the women washed their clothes with gray-ish looking water, and spoke to us about how hard it was for them everyday to gather enough water for cooking, drinking, and hygiene. This was likely part of the reason the existing toilets were in such bad shape, the residents barely had enough water to get by, they were not going to use so much of it for flushing their waste down the toilet. We explained to them that our Humble Toilet is a dry toilet that instead of using liters of water for flushing, uses scoops of sawdust. They seemed excited about that idea.
Fact: a typical pour-flush latrine uses anywhere from 6-9 liters of water for each flush!
With the green light from the camp residents in this spot, we went ahead and started our toilet installation. This was a two day process, starting with the initial site visit to locate the exact spot, the transportation of our materials to the camp, and the pit digging and installation. Images D and E show our materials in the camp before installation began.
Our Humble Toilet comes in two designs - above ground and underground. At the Majnu Ka Tila site, the land was such that we felt it was okay to go with the underground design, so we dug a pit. Through asking around in the community, we identified a few men who were willing and able to do the labor of digging the pit. The pit was dug out in a square shape (Image F), and was about five feet deep. The men then placed a loose layer of bricks at the bottom, and lined the pit with a plastic sheet (Image G).
After this came the placing of concrete rings - our material of choice for this pit. We do not want to collect fecal waste simply inside a hole in the ground lined with plastic. It is better to collect it in a vessel that can contain it more easily. The men gently used ropes to place the rings inside the pit (Image H). Once this was done, they used concrete to seal the gaps between the rings (Images I and J). Then they refilled the empty parts of the pit using the dirt they had dug out, creating a seal around the concrete rings (Image K).
While some men were working on finishing the pit, the BasicShit team along with some women from the community started the toilet assembly. Our toilet comes in a flat pack, and can be assembled easily in just about an hour. We gave a few volunteers some bright pink vests, and showed them how the structure comes together (Images L-N). Our assembly had gathered a bit of a crowd, as everyone was excited and curious to see how we put the toilet together.
After the toilet was fully assembled, screwed together, and final touches made, it was time to lift it and place it over the concrete ring-pit. This took a team of about four men, led by BasicShit's founder, Ashwani. They settled the toilet over top of the pit, and then they placed a row of bricks at the bottom of the toilet to seal it to the pit and close any gaps (Image O).
Once all this was complete, we made sure to explain to everyone, especially the women in that area, how this toilet is meant to be used and how to maintain it. We thoroughly showed them that sawdust needs to be deposited after every use, and doing this consistently will ensure that there is no bad smell. One of our team members, Sahaj, actually went inside the toilet and demonstrated its use. He made it clear that the toilet is strong and sturdy, as even a tall guy like him can use it without fear of collapse.
Ensuring that everyone felt comfortable about its usage, the toilet was set and our installation was complete (Image P). We handed over the key to the community, with high hopes that they will maintain it. We could not have done it without the cooperation and enthusiasm of the residents of the camp who will be using it. Their hospitality was appreciated, and we thank them for their support.
Follow along on our social media to see how the toilet holds up! If you like the work that BasicShit does, consider donating to one of our fundraisers in the Support Us page, or become a Patron on our Patreon to get access to some inside footage of this installation and much more!