Second year MA students Katherine Delavan, Nandita Kotwal, Kammi Sheeler, and Colin Wright travel to Chennai, India to explore issues related to urban sanitation through the IDEV Practicum.

Take a harrowing ride in an auto-rickshaw along the cluttered and winding streets of Chennai, India, and try asking your driver to pull over to a public restroom. His confused look should give some indication of the extent of a systemic sanitation problem on the subcontinent. Public service provision has gone drastically underfunded, and the image of India is mixed - partially painted with the vibrant palette of energetic and sustained economic growth, tempered with the more muted tones of having over 20% of its population still below the poverty line. This problem is visible through the lens of India’s well-known issues with sanitation, prominent among which is the continued practice of open defecation by nearly half of the country’s 1.2 billion citizens.

At an event soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power, he picked up a broom (though largely for ceremony, as it was on a clean street strewn with a few green leaves) and famously said, “Don’t we all have a duty to clean the country?” Although his message wasn’t revolutionary or novel, the symbolism of the gesture was not lost on his optimistic audience. The increasing recognition of investment and capacity gaps in Indian cities has culminated in the launch of the Swacch Bharat (Clean India) Mission, the Smart Cities Mission (SCM) and the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT). Each of these programs has financing support for infrastructure creation across urban areas in general and sanitation in particular. Working with Athena Infonomics, a consulting organization based in Chennai, India, our team was tasked with supporting the development of a decision tool to help municipalities select and prioritize sanitation investments.

Sanitation policy is usually viewed as the product of a purely technical decision-making process. Public services to be provided are selected by focusing on quantitative variables, such as available land, depth of water table, and population density. Rather than considering long-term solutions for the existing problems, urban planning is more often a reactive process than a planned strategy. However, during a two week visit to Chennai in early January, our team met with public officials, university professors, and civil society organizations to get a more nuanced picture of the factors involved in making sanitation decisions.

When we arrived in Chennai, the city had recently experienced its worst flooding in over a century. This bustling economic hub in the south of India was underwater for much of November and December, with 5 million residents affected. In addition to the estimated $3 billion in economic costs, more than 300 people lost their lives to this disaster. The crisis drew international attention to the urgent need for better urban planning in developing areas. Chennai’s infrastructure, from its roads to its sewer network and clean water supply, was not equipped to handle such heavy rainfall. One of our goals upon arrival in India was to learn how municipalities could make smarter, more resilient infrastructure investments.

Among the important discoveries yielded by our field meetings was that land acquisition in Tamil Nadu is often fraught with difficult inter-departmental disagreements leading to substantial delays in sanitation projects. Another interesting finding was that underground sewerage has come to be seen as a symbol of “developed” status, and thus septic systems often face pushback from officials, even when they are the most practical and cost-efficient option. Additionally, sanitation provision in informal settlements is a puzzle involving a high population density with little available space; communal toilets are the typical solution but questions of ownership and maintenance responsibilities have yet to be resolved. These among other discoveries from our field visit will serve to adapt our blueprint to the Indian context and add to development research compiled from global practices.