The launching of the Fecal Sludge Management program in Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu state. (Photo courtesy of Gramalaya) 

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Thirty years ago, more than 98 percent of villages in the Tiruchirappalli district of Tamil Nadu lacked household toilets. As a result, residents were compelled to defecate in the open. Diseases such as cholera and typhoid were rampant, as were instances of stunted growth and cognitive impairment in children.1

Fast-forward to 2016, and toilet statistics have reversed. Thanks to Gramalaya, an Indian NGO that was founded in 1987, 90 percent of those villages now have access to functioning toilets in every home. In fact, a majority of the villages in which Gramalaya works have eliminated open defecation. Compare that with the rest of rural India, where three out of five people continue to defecate in the open.2

Gramalaya’s success in supporting the installation of more than 150,000 toilets in five states can be attributed to its approach, which combines community mobilization with access to financing so that families can afford to build high-quality toilets. The model gives community members ownership in the initiative, which also fosters better, and sustainable, hygiene habits. As Sue Coates from UNICEF explains, “Just building toilets is not going to solve the problem, because open defecation is a practice acquired from the time you learn how to walk. When you grow up in an environment where everyone does it, even if you later have access to proper sanitation, you will revert back to it.” 3

How Gramalaya Works

Gramalaya begins its work in a given area by conducting a survey, which identifies villages that have the lowest toilet coverage (the percentage of people with access to functioning toilet facilities). A team then visits those villages, meets with local leaders, and goes door-to-door to collect more detailed information about sanitation habits and behaviors. In this triggering exercise, Gramalaya members bring villagers to an open defecation site, which is then used as a backdrop to talk to the community about safe sanitation and how toilets can help.

Next, Gramalaya encourages community members to form and join Association for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (AWASH) committees. These committees will become sanitation champions and technical implementers, responsible for coordinating the order in which households will receive toilets, managing subsidies and loan disbursements, and constructing toilets.

Smart loans then come into play. These loans are the lifeblood of Gramalaya’s model. At first, the organization relied on government subsidies to finance the construction of sanitation infrastructure, but that approach proved inadequate. So, in 2007 Gramalaya helped create Guardian Microfinance, the only microfinance company in India with a loan portfolio focused exclusively on water and sanitation. Guardian’s support allowed families to take out small loans to build or upgrade toilets, and to install household water connections and septic tanks with cost-effective leach pits, freeing them from an overreliance on subsidies. Guardian works through women’s selfhelp groups to disburse loans, which range from INR 5,000 to 20,000 ($75 to $300) and have a repayment period of 18 months.

Banumathi Rengar, from the village of Keelakottamedu, is one loan recipient. Rengar and her husband work as daily wage laborers and formerly practiced open defecation in nearby fields. With three teenage daughters, fears about their safety prompted Rengar to approach Guardian. As she explains, “I decided that no matter what, we had to build a toilet.”

Other Sanitation Work

Beyond toilets, Gramalaya recognizes that disease-causing fecal matter will eventually filter into water bodies if left untreated—and so it has partnered with the Consortium for Decentralized Wastewater Treatment System Dissemination Society (CDD) since 2015 on fecal sludge management initiatives to ensure the safe disposal of waste. (See “Fixing India’s Sewage Problem.”) Ten months ago, Gramalaya joined a fecal sludge management pilot program in two cities in Tamil Nadu. The project, launched in 2015 by the government of Tamil Nadu with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will build, maintain, and scale fecal sludge treatment programs there.

Gramalaya is now a national resource center for the Indian government in four southern states, and it regularly provides training and capacity-building support on sanitation interventions to government officials, other NGOs, and international research bodies. The number of lives it has improved is significant; in Tamil Nadu alone, Gramalaya’s efforts have provided access to toilets for 350,000 people.

Despite these successes, the organization continues to look for ways to expand its reach. Last year, Gramalaya launched an ambitious Big Clean Up India campaign to install 10 million toilets in 10 states by 2019 by allying with similar organizations across the country.

Founder S. Damodaran recognizes that the goal is ambitious, but he is also optimistic. As he says, “Prime Minister Modi wants to make India open-defecation free by 2019. We have had great success with our model and hope to help India reach that goal.”