A slick design awards in Europe seem a far place from toilet-building in rural India, but earlier this month, a sanitation project won the prestigious Global+5 Award in Geneva. The MANTRA project (Movement and Action Network for Transformation of Rural Lives, which seems like it should be MANTRL), based the in eastern Indian state of Orissa, helps to provide toilets and piped running water to communities where 85% of the population has no access to a toilet and 94% no running water.
"It’s more than water and sanitation, it’s human dignity," said Joe Madiath, head of the MANTRA project, part of a larger non-governmental group called Gram Vikas. As a precocious pre-teen, Madiath started originally organizing farm workers to lobby for better conditions. Since then, his organization has helped more than 522,000 families get water—and his focus is on the poor and members of the indigenous group known as the Adivasi.
So far, the Indian group says it has reached 988 villages, including those in hilly areas lacking electricity, and reports that its project has led to a more than 80% drop in waterborne disease. Without such help, "rural communities remain more prone to waterborne diseases and as a result demoralized and unable to defeat the cycle of poverty," it said in a statement.
Indian census data shows that in the country of 1.2 billion people, more households have access to a telephone than a toilet. Some 47% of India’s 330 million households have toilet facilities while 63% of homes have phone connections, mostly mobiles. MANTRA works with the community: all construction of hand-washing stations and toilets makes use of the villagers’ own resources, materials, and labor, demystifying construction techniques and enhancing their skills. The same approach has been used to build roads, drainage systems, community halls, and schools.
Part of Madiath’s mission was convincing the indigenous people that sanitation—particularly human waste, which is considered taboo—was an important issue. He designed murals and had them painted around villages to sway their views. Madiath says that women are often the first to sign on, as they are usually the water-fetchers and the ones who often care for family members sickened from unhealthy water.
The organization says that part of the Indian psyche is that the rural masses only need low-cost (and usually low-quality) solutions to their problems. But they try to break that paradigm. As the organization writes: "We only build toilets that we ourselves would use."