Chennai: One Toilet at a Time

Street market outside of railway station near Corporation of Chennai
Street market outside of a railway station in central Chennai

I arrived in the city of Chennai, India on a steamy evening in June and it has been a whirl of crazy auto rides, dosai, mangoes, toilet mapping, and new colleagues at my internship with Transparent Chennai ever since.

Formerly known as Madras, Chennai is located in the south-eastern state of Tamil Nadu, on the Bay of Bengal. With a population of 4.68 million people, it is the 6th largest city in India, and struggles considerably to meet the needs of its citizens, partly due to the incomplete and inaccurate nature of the data surrounding public infrastructure held by the local government body (the Corporation of Chennai.) Transparent Chennai, a research based organization at the Institute for Financial Management and Research, strives to fill in this gap. Its mission is to collect and redistribute information about civic issues to the citizens and government of Chennai and provide a platform for the people to have greater input in city planning and governance and to advocate for a safer, healthier city.

Public toilet near Marina Beach - Chennai, India
Public toilet near Marina Beach – Chennai, India

The majority of my work in the coming months will be on the cleanliness and availability of public toilets; a key issue for sanitation and health, particularly in a city like Chennai with a large population of informally settle people who do not have private bathrooms. Women are particularly affected by this as they are vulnerable to sexual assault when using the toilet and require more privacy as there is greater shame surrounding the act of relieving themselves, while low quality facilities in schools can contribute to girls dropping out once they hit puberty.

My work will involve organizing mapping of the city streets to gather information on all existing public toilets and assisting the development and implementation of a survey for mapping out toilets in public schools. Digitizing this information, creating maps for the public, analyzing the data and making reports for the government will also take much of my time. In addition to this I will assist in the copy editing the blogs posted on our website, as well as writing two of my own blog posts.

(The first of which can be found here! )

My interest in working at Transparent Chennai stemmed from an Anthropology of Development class I took last fall. We studied how development projects often came about without any consultation of the people whose lives were being “improved” and provided what was not needed (or wanted) if they managed to produce anything at all. This experience inspired me to try to find an organization that recognized and addressed this seemingly common problem in development work.

I started getting in touch with people I knew that were involved in urban development work and it was these conversations that ultimately led me to Transparent Chennai. I got in touch with the director directly, and despite her busy schedule she took the time to email with me and talk over the phone about how Transparent Chennai came to be, the challenges associated with living and working in a developing country and my professional goals.

From the start I felt that Transparent Chennai would be a good fit, and so far that has proven to be the case! As it is a relatively small organization there was a lot of flexibility in the work I wanted to do, and continues to be in my first weeks. Everyone here cares about their job and works really hard, while also being incredibly welcoming and social! I was able to immediately jump right into it, organizing and co-leading a mapping session for 46 student volunteers, editing four blog posts, learning how to use QGIS, and digitizing the data all in my first week!

My goals to improve my data analysis skills, my writing — particularly in a professional context — and to gain experience in the field of urban planning, are already being met, and so far I feel very lucky to have found this internship.

Toilet mapping orientation for student volunteers
Toilet mapping orientation for student volunteers – Marina Beach, Chennai

Sophy Burns ’14

3 thoughts on “Chennai: One Toilet at a Time”

  1. As you might have guessed, your title grabbed my attention. I was struck by your professional and humorous writing – a balance that seems important in the work you are doing! Reading through your post made me realize how much I take for granted the naive assumption that I will always have a safe and clean place to take care of… well, personal business. I had never thought of public restrooms as a safety problem, but after reading your post I’m surprised it never occurred to me before. Thank you for opening my eyes and for the important work your doing!

  2. Sophy,
    I was in India a few years ago and distinctly remember desperately trying to find a bathroom for a good hour before finally finding a public toilet. Now I am not grossed out easily, but that bathroom was so utterly disgusting, as it had clearly never once been cleaned, that I wondered if it was safer for me (hygienically and communicable disease-wise) to simply go behind a bush.
    Reading your blog about this issue raised questions for me about how effective your agency’s system is. I realize, of course, that the object of your agency is to improve these conditions, but I still don’t have a clear sense of how that is actually going to happen. Mapping public toilets and digitizing that information is nice, but if families are too poor to have access to a toilet, it seems unlikely that they will have access to a computer or even know to look for a map of public toilets online. Even if they do, or if the maps are handed out door-to-door, there remains the issue of safety (in relation to both assualt in bathrooms and the unhygienic conditions of the public toilets).
    I sincerely apologize if I seem like I’m attacking your work any way, I most definitely am not trying to. I would just like to hear a bit more about how your agency is addressing the issues of unclean public restrooms and the related privacy and safety issues you had mentioned.
    Enjoy the rest of your summer!

  3. Hi Sophy,

    Your work in India sounds very interesting. Such urban planning is critical to the physical and social well being of Chennai’s citizens, so you’re doing tremendous work! I volunteered in Northern India last summer and often noticed how much of a disarray public sanitation systems were in. I was just curious if Transparent Chennai also deals with garbage removal in the area or strictly on the issue of public toilets as I’d think the two issues are largely connected? Also, I’d love to hear about how you’ve been adjusting to living in India in general? It’s an amazing country, enjoy!


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