Toilets, Cities, and Economic Development: A Note on Emerging and Future Research

By Vinit Mukhija, Faculty Cluster Leader of Global Urbanization and Regional Development; Professor of Urban Planning


Current United Nations’ estimates suggest that more than a third of the world’s population (around 2.5 billion people) practices open defecation or lacks access to adequate sanitation. About a quarter of them are in India. Many of them live in its dense cities, and the country has the most people defecating in the open. Emerging research is helping to reveal the robust connection between sanitation and children’s nutrition, health, and mortality rates, education of females, household incomes, and economic productivity. The evidence, particularly from India, also suggests that the sanitation-related disease burden is more in dense cities.

In other words, as one of my urban planning students recently shared with me, “Toilets are trending” in development. This new emerging wisdom and salience of toilets in international development has several implications for urban planning and global health research. I am particularly interested in three ideas, and share them below.

First, I would like to see more research empirically examining the link between sanitation and economic development. Although the received wisdom has been that sanitation infrastructure increases with economic development, the arrow of causality may not be one-sided and an emphasis on toilets opens up opportunities for both new research directions and policy interventions.

Second, given the problem of limited access to toilets in dense cities and their informal settlements, a focus on the potential role of sanitation in development may suggest the need for new approaches in upgrading slums and informal settlements. In informal settlements with low density it is easier to add infrastructure, including private toilets, through in-situ upgrading and minimal changes in the layouts of the neighborhoods. However, in dense settlements, adding infrastructure, particularly toilets, is very difficult. In such neighborhoods, there may be a need and support for alternative upgrading policies, including slum demolition and redevelopment, and land readjustment to create space for “group toilets,” or toilets shared by a small group of three to five households.

Finally, I see a need and opportunity for in-depth case studies of innovative institutional practices in increasing use of and access to toilets. India is a great laboratory for such research. Although India has a significant problem of lack of sanitation infrastructure and open defecation, some states and districts are making noteworthy progress in improving infrastructure and becoming “open defecation free”. These states include Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Maharashtra, particularly Kolhapur district, and Haryana. This is an institutionally, geographically, economically, and socially diverse group of states. Their rates and density of urbanization also vary significantly. However, what is common across this varied group is their apparent success in the provision of toilets. But what explains their success? What have these states done differently? I suspect that there are institutionally rich explanations of their accomplishments, and research that can help reveal their success will be very helpful for both development theory and the practice of development planning.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *