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The “Designing a Sanitation Hub” team visits a field site.

Conventionally, community infrastructure in India has been thought about in mono-functional terms — making the deployment of standardized, mono-functional community restrooms largely unsuccessful in addressing the lack of sanitation infrastructure in under-serviced areas of India. The negative connotations associated with the community restrooms in Indian society have often resulted in a strained relationship between communities and their infrastructural facilities, which in turn has translated into low levels of facility usage and lack of maintenance.

Through a collaboration between the Tata Trusts and the Mittal Institute, the project “Designing a Sanitation Hub” will yield a series of design drawings and representations of how a sanitation “hub” will be configured spatially in both rural and urban settings, including indigenous community settlements (such as the koliwadas and lal dora areas) to high-density squatter settlements.

Changing the Behavior and Myths around Community Restrooms

Rahul Mehrotra, architect and Professor and Chair of Urban Design and Planning at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, is leading the project and has noted that the key to ensuring that pieces of sanitation infrastructure remain embedded in the fabric of lived experience in the city is by adopting a fine-grained approach to this issue. To do so, the functions of community infrastructure must be reimagined, to gradually lead to a shift in culture. A successful solution must also acknowledge the wide range of settlement types throughout India.

Aerial view of the transitional settlement of Virochannagar.

Under the project, a sanitation hub is being conceptualized as a facility that contains a wide range of programmatic functions: a laundromat, a community restroom, a healthcare center (such as a clinic or a collection center for a path lab), and a hub for clean water, while simultaneously serving as a platform for community activities. It will address the usage of community restrooms, as well as the broader question of health.

Addressing the Inequities of Community Infrastructure 

In the past few months, the team has conducted extensive field visits to potential sites for development and have identified two key sites. The diversity of the two selected sites will ensure that that the infrastructure that evolves is more holistic and takes into account the differences that might occur when the design solutions are deployed in a wide range of settlements in India, without being redundant. A key criterion for the design of this prototype will be the notion of reversibility, accounting for the material, technology, and structural systems that will be deployed.

The first identified site is Virochannagar in Gujarat, a transitioning town surrounded by an agrarian field and located in the periphery of the state’s capital of Ahmedabad. The second site that has been selected is Mahim in Mumbai, where the volatile Mithi River drains into the Mahim Creek and forms the border between the megacity Mumbai and its suburban districts. Apart from being a slum settlement against the background of extreme urbanism, which characterizes most Indian cities, Mahim offers the added complexities of proximity to high land value, state housing facilities, and to the natural systems (such as mangrove forests) that are in a state of flux due to climate change.

Long-term, the project aims to implement the developed prototype within India through collaborations with key local and state collaborators. The team will work with local entrepreneurs throughout India to formulate a strategy for a sanitation-related economy that can support the creation of such infrastructure, as well as its operation, maintenance, and future improvements.