PLAN 66: Article
Human Rights And Sustainable Sanitation

A New Planning Practicum in India

A practicum on human rights and sustainable sanitation in the Indian state of Gujarat has resulted in a potential solution to the human rights issue of manual scavenging. The practicum was conducted last spring and summer by Balakrishnan Rajagopal, Ford International Associate Professor of Law and Development in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and Director of MIT’s Program on Human Rights and Justice.

Manual scavenging, the act of removing excreta from dry pit latrines, is a prevalent practice in parts of India where water shortage has made the widespread use of public pour-flush toilets infeasible. Dalit (also known as untouchables) workers gather excreta without protective apparel and often use their bare hands and feet and a broom to perform their job, earning less than a dollar a day – a state of virtual forced labor from which there is little hope of exit due to India’s centuries-old caste system. Though dangerous and odious, it is often the sole economic opportunity for Dalit women.Â

The Indian government has declared this practice to be a grave violation of human rights. It is also, of course, a detriment to public health – the scavengers are at high risk for disease, and sludge from pit latrines threatens to contaminate water resources. The construction of dry pit latrines and the practice of human waste removal were outlawed in 1993 but the laws are rarely enforced because feasible sanitation alternatives have yet to be determined.Â

The objective of this project was to improve the scavengers’ living and working conditions by designing a sanitation technology that would preclude the need for manual scavenging and by analyzing the planning options that might make this technology work on the ground. The practicum consisted of a semester-long course conducted during the spring of 2006, fieldwork during the summer and the completion of a major report this fall to the NGO client, Navsarjan, a leading Dalit organization and social movement in India.Â

The classroom teaching in the spring introduced students to the political, social and historical aspects of the Indian caste system, the nature of manual scavenging and its causes and consequences. The course also covered the technical and institutional aspects of water and sanitation projects, the global policy and legal frameworks within which manual scavenging needs to be understood, and the legal, policy and institutional efforts by governments in India to tackle the problem so far.

During the summer fieldwork, students faced some of the toughest conditions they are ever likely to face – living in the Navsarjan compound, sharing their food and dealing with a very difficult subject matter in heat that always exceeded 100 degrees. But by the end of their stay, the team had completed a comprehensive socio-economic and health survey, in collaboration with Navsarjan, and designed a new technology that makes sanitation safe from both the users’ and cleaners’ perspectives.

Requiring neither water nor the laying of expensive sewer piping, their Ecosan latrine separates liquid from solid waste, removing foul odors and encouraging biodegradation. The desiccated waste and separated urine are safe to handle, after a specified period of time, and may even be used as soil conditioner and fertilizer. Over time, if correctly operated, such Ecosan latrines are more sustainable and less resource-intensive than pour-flush toilets.Â

As a demonstration, the team built a model of their design and presented it in two village meetings, leading to the placement of more than 80 orders. They also designed new information materials, such as pamphlets in Gujarati and English, and created linkages between Navsarjan and a number of other government and non-governmental organizations and educational institutions. Their work was covered in the media by papers such as the Times of India, India’s leading English daily.

The team will present its work at a day-long conference at MIT on December 1, hosted by the Program in Human Rights and Justice and co-sponsored by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Attended by academics, NGOs and international organizations, the conference will address such issues as why the Indian state has been unable to abolish manual scavenging, whether it helps to frame the issue in terms of human rights, and the implications of this case for the overall relationship between development and human rights goals and strategies.

Professor Rajagopal is now collaborating with Navsarjan on the implementation of the recommendations in the report. He has also received a grant of $150,000 from the Omidyar Network for the continuation of the project and has been invited by the National Planning Commission of India to make a presentation in Delhi.Â

Practica such as this one – designed to help put theory into practice by providing field experience in city and regional planning – are newly-required for graduate students in planning. The MCP program has a long tradition of offering such courses – in years past they have been conducted in Africa, China and the Netherlands, as well as domestically – but the program requirement is new. This was the first of the practica ever to take place in India and the first one to be taught by a faculty member in the field of international development.

For more information, contact Professor Rajagopal at

Posted November 2006