Why does your drain smell so bad?

TNUSSP banner_02 may 2018

So, you have finished using the toilet. And, have flushed it down. But seriously, where does it all go?

When you ask this question, the answers you get will range from septic tanks to pits to the underground sewerage systems etc. But, is that the whole story? Now that is the difficult question, which begs a real hard look at the ground reality.

Let’s travel some years back in history. It is a well-known fact that ancient India had a fine network of storm water drains, which acted both as groundwater recharge systems, as well as flood control devices. In cities like Chennai, the network of storm water drains led to ponds (kulams) which acted as natural flood control devices. Thanks to unbridled ‘development’ and growth of unplanned settlements both these ‘kulams’ and the storm water drains are polluted and choked.

How have things come to this state? One of the major contributors of pollution in storm water drains (SWDs) are the people themselves. This happens in three ways:  Many of the households, which have no containment structures attached to their toilets, connect the toilets to the storm water drains.  Sometimes, even households, which have containment structures, connect the outlets the storm water drains. Thirdly, it is not unusual to see that the grey water from the kitchen and bathroom being connected to the storm water drain directly.

A study conducted by Tamil Nadu Urban Sanitation Support Programme (TNUSSP) on the state of the storm water drains showed that this kind of pollution was not only common in small towns but also in mega cities. When asked why toilets and containment structures were connected to storm water drains, most of the residents said that they used the storm water drains as an easy option because it was the “common practice in the area.” Some of them also mentioned the “lack of other options” as one of the reasons.

Letting grey water from the kitchen and bathroom into the open or closed drains is a very common practice all over the country. This is also because many of the people believe that storm water drains are meant to carry the grey water. It comes as a surprise to many people when they learn that storm water drains are meant only to carry storm water and urban runoff (surface runoff of rainwater) to the natural water bodies.  However, in reality, the storm water drains end up carrying all the wastewater from the cities (and towns) to the natural water bodies resulting in the grand scale pollution of the water bodies and leading to a colossal public health hazard.

How does dumping of solid waste affect drains?
Dumping of solid waste in the drains is another huge problem that affects the functioning of the drain itself. The drains are designed based on certain set of criteria like the amount of rainfall in the area, natural slope and type of soil etc., which helps to estimates the amount of storm water that will get collected in a particular area. Dumping of solid waste and wastewater into the drains affect their functioning, resulting in improper flow, siltation and stagnation of water which further leads to a whole range of problems like bad odour and serving as a breeding ground for diseases like malaria, dengue, etc.

Where does it end up?
The final destination for the wastewater, which is carried by the drains are the natural water bodies such as streams, rivers, canals etc. A research into how these waterbodies have transformed over a period of time into gutters carrying dirty water will help us understand how we are killing them slowly.  Not very long ago, people used to stop to look down bridges to enjoy the scenic beauty of clean, flowing water. Today, they cover their noses and try to get away as soon as possible.

To understand this problem better, the TNUSSP team conducted catchment level assessment of drains in selected locations. Watch this space for further insights into the study.

For Further Reference:

  1. (http://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/what-drains-mean-to-cities-44069, 2014)


sancy photo




Olassayil Sancy Sebastian
Junior Specialist, TNUSSP






Suneethi Sundar
Specialist, TNUSSP


Menstrual Hygiene Management – Let us talk louder

lets talk louder

Menstruation is concomitant with womanhood. Nevertheless, in my adolescence, I was taught to deal with this as a taboo subject. But, that was a while ago. What is the situation now? How does the modern adolescent girl, in this age, deal with this inevitable body function? Has the silence around ‘those five days’ been broken? It was with these thoughts that I embarked upon a study to explore what adolescent girls in small towns think of menstruation, and how to deal with it.

Recently, I happened to chat with a bunch of 12-14- year old girls about menstruation, and what they thought about it. The girls were shy and uncomfortable in the beginning. Gradually, they began to open up and what followed was a very engrossing discussion. Every single girl in the group had something to say from her own personal experience. While many of the stories sounded similar, a few were rather unusual.

When I was growing up, despite the silence and the taboo, my mother had taken care to introduce the concept of menstruation to me. When I attained menarche, I was mentally prepared to handle it. Contrary to what I had experienced, most of the girls I spoke to practically had no information about menstruation from their mothers. On the other hand, many of them had been told that they had to inform an aunt or an elderly woman in the neighbourhood at the onset of their first period. It was a popular belief that informing the mother or the grandmother would bring bad luck to the girl for her entire life. The girls also said that during the course of their first period they were made to sit on a wooden plank in a secluded area of the house for a period of 7 to 10 days. Some of them were also made to remain there for as long as two weeks. Once the period of seclusion was over, some families celebrated the occasion with a grand ceremony to which neighbours and relatives were invited.

However, once this celebration was over, the girls were not expected to speak about their periods openly even with their own mothers. Their monthly cycle was to be ‘suffered’ in silence, because of which girls got the basic information from their peers, who were as ill-informed as themselves. This had resulted in a variety of misconceptions around menstruation and menstrual hygiene.

The girls also reported that several restrictions were imposed on them during their monthly menstrual cycle. They were prohibited from attending any religious festivals, going to the temple, prevented from entering the kitchen or hanging out with their friends and family members. Some of them were even prevented from eating certain kinds of foods.

“During my periods, my family behaves like I have got a contagious disease. I am not even allowed to touch anyone else,” said one girl, while some others reported that they had to refrain from eating some kinds of foods. Anything sweet was forbidden because it was popularly believed that eating sweets would result in increased blood flow, which would be detrimental to the health of the girl.

Attending school during the menstrual cycle continued to be a nightmare, with problems being faced at every stage from travelling to school to concentrating in the classroom to changing sanitary pads. “Taking a sanitary pad out of my bag, carrying it discreetly to the toilet and safely disposing of the used pad, is not at all easy,” said one girl. Her story reminded me of my school days.

While government schools have made a small attempt to make girls comfortable during their monthly cycle by offering them six packets of free sanitary napkins each month, the girls were not comfortable using them. “These pads are not very absorbent,” they said, adding that most of them took the packets and gave them to their mothers, who used them along with the usual cloth. The girls, on the other hand, preferred to use branded sanitary pads, which they got from the local pharmacy.

Home remedies were still the most popular form of treatment to deal with problems and discomfort associated with menstruation. Most of the girls said that they had never thought of consulting a physician for any period-related discomfort like stomach aches or cramps. Coconut oil, turmeric powder, fenugreek seeds, castor oil etc., continued to be the sought-after remedies during those five days. Superstitious beliefs continued to thrive around everything related to menstruation, some of them even leading to unintended good. “My grandmother says if I don’t dispose of the used napkin properly I will get Naga Dosha,” said one girl to my amusement. At least proper disposal was being taken care of, I thought.

As the discussion came to a close, I realised that taboos and irrational fear continued to abound around everything related to menstruation. It is very important that girls are not only educated about menstruation and menstrual hygiene but also to be given lessons that would trigger a positive perception about their monthly period, thereby boosting their self-esteem. Parents, especially mothers, had to be brought into the ambit of discussion and talking about menstruation and menstrual management had to be encouraged.

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S. Elizabeth Prasanna,                                Social Worker,
Keystone Foundation

A loo that is usable too!

In the winter of 1999, when I was a post graduate student of social work in Mumbai, we were taken to a remote village in Banaskantha District, Gujarat. The objective of this visit was to understand the rural way of life, their customs and practices, the formal and informal institutions at work and so on. As young 20 somethings, we all were very excited about the trip but for one aspect. There were no toilets!! We were all told that we would have to use the open fields just like all the other women in the village did. At some point or the other in our growing up years, we would have definitely relieved ourselves in public; either while travelling by bus, or while visiting our native village or sometimes even within the city while going from point A to point B where public conveniences were either absent or open defecation (OD) was better than using these toilets.

Pics for blog
Photo Courtesy: Nitin Kumar Gupta/NavShrishti NGO

However, in our early twenties, defecating in the open seemed quite an uncomfortable task to do especially when you had to choose between early morning or late night. During the course of those ten days, while some of us got adjusted to the open toilets, few others had severe gastrointestinal problems on our return back to Mumbai. Of course there were a fair share of humorous incidents such as the one where after an “evening visit” to the anointed spot, as we were collecting the “lotas” to leave, we suddenly saw a huge black thing move right next to us. To our utter alarm, we realized we had been blissfully unaware of the camel sitting right next to us while we defecated under the star-lit sky!

Our experience with inadequate toilets didn’t quite end in the village. As we waited in Ahmedabad for our train to Mumbai, we were forced to use the toilets in a movie hall which repulsed us to the core.   Badly maintained, with no running water, poor electricity and broken doors, it made us want to run back to the open fields in the villages. When I look back at this episode in light of the recent attention to sanitation and OD, I am able to relate to all the reasons people gave for not cultivating the toilet-using habit. Despite having built toilets, poor maintenance, lack of water and hygiene were the main reasons which made several women in the villages to prefer open fields to toilets, risking their safety, privacy and convenience.

So, why is that though there are several schemes and programmes for toilet construction, OD is still a major concern in India? The answer, I believe, lies in the usability of the toilets constructed. By usability, I don’t mean only the cleanliness and maintenance of the facility. Usability comprises of several other factors: availability of the toilet, followed by the distance to the facility, accessibility i.e is there sufficient lighting, are there ramps for the disabled and senior citizens, are the toilet pans appropriate for different age groups such as children? Is there privacy and safety for adolescent girls, and so on. The sanitation infrastructure in India lacks the human life-cycle thinking. The recognition that different people have different sanitation requirements at different stages in their life which affects the way they use toilets is neglected in toilet design and construction. Although a handful of organisations working at the grassroots have incorporated some aspects of this life-cycle thinking by making smaller pans for children, open dwarf-walled cubicles where children can see their mothers or defecate under the mothers’ supervision and so on, these modifications in design are exceptions and not the norm.

With rampant construction of toilets under the SBM and attention to behavior change where people are encouraged to use toilets, it might be worthwhile to conduct rapid assessments of the different needs of toilet users in order to reorient the current toilet designs. With several players getting involved in sanitation construction and campaigns targeting behavior change, we need to mainstream studies on usability to bring about a shift in the guidelines on toilet specifications. For our multi-crore schemes to be effective and reach the target audience, it is time to pause and pay attention to the needs of the end user. Achieving universal access to sanitation is a good thing, but let us ensure people can use it too.

Harini Pic for website

Sriharini Narayanan
Senior Specialist, TNUSSP