Page last updated at 15:50 GMT, Friday, 19 March 2010

Should the UK fund toilets in Mumbai slums?

By Humphrey Hawksley
BBC News, Mumbai

International development aid is one part of the UK budget unlikely to be cut in a squeeze on public finances. But questions are being asked about how aid is used, and which countries need it. India last year got almost £300m from the UK, some of it spent on toilets in the country's financial capital, Mumbai.

Streams in the slums are often used as toilets

The stench from the stagnant, fetid stream of the Queresh Nagar slum in Mumbai hits you as soon as you get out of the car.

The slum itself is bustling and vibrant. There is a line of shops with living quarters above. The stream is behind, the water a murky grey with insects buzzing on top. Some residents have rigged up filthy plastic covers at the back of their homes for privacy. But the children scamper around using the stream, or whatever ground they can find on the disused rail track behind, for a toilet.

"We have to live in these conditions," says La La Nawab Ali, who is showing me around.

"What can we do? You can see the state of it. This is Mumbai."

In another slum at Munjul Nagar, residents show letters, many signed with thumb prints, asking the authorities to finish building a toilet block that has been left half-finished. A similar stench pervades the air.

"It's an extremely difficult and helpless situation," explains Prasad Shetty, an urban planning consultant. "It's an extremely embarrassing undignified demeaning kind of experience for them."


Some areas of Mumbai still have no working toilets, as Humphrey Hawksley discovers

Most of the funding for the sanitation project initially came from the World Bank and was then was taken over by the Mumbai government.

A small amount of British aid goes from the UK Department of International Development (DFID) through charities in England and India, mainly to train people to maintain their community toilet blocks. But many in the slums say they know little or nothing about it.

"You foreign people from over there, you keep on sending so much money," says one angry slum resident. "But the poor person sees nothing."

No water

Central to the scheme is building blocks of public toilets that can be used by the millions of people presently living with no sanitation.

India plans to spend more than US$1bn on its space programme next year

Most of the blocks built so far work, but evaluators say there have been problems with about a third of them. Some have been built with no water supply. Some are not being maintained. One in the Queresh Nagar slum had to be pulled down because it was unsafe. The one in the Munjul Nagar slum has been left half-built because of objections from a developer.

"And somebody even sells the toilets," explained Jockin Arputham, founder of the National Federation of Slum Dwellers. "Sometimes they might have been sold to somebody for a premium."

Top DFID aid recipients

When asked if that was corruption, he replied: "That is it. It is known to everybody."

The dynamics of the Indian slums are almost impossible for outsiders to fathom. With the Mumbai city authorities spending large sums on other infrastructure projects, questions are being raised as to whether British money is still needed.

Last year Britain gave almost £300m (US$500m) to India in development aid. But India plans to spend more than US$1bn on its space programme next year.

"The Mumbai government does not require British taxpayers' money," says Mr Shetty. "It has money. The government institutions are loaded with money."

Jockin Arputham agrees that India is rich enough to fund the sanitation programme itself. It is a question of priorities. "If it were up to me, I would personally say I don't need [British aid]."

An International Development Committee report released in the UK this month highlighted the issue: "At a time of austerity and a search for savings in the public sector," it said, "it is essential that every pound of public money spent on development assistance has a measurable impact."

Behind the glitter

Britain is about to stop its aid budget to China, which is now seen as being too rich to need it, putting India and other emerging economies under the spotlight.

Both the main political parties in the UK parliament say they would protect the almost £6bn aid budget from cuts.

An unfinished block
One sanitation block has been left half-built

But the Conservatives say they want the way this money is spent to be far more transparent and independently accountable.

"The British taxpayer is not going to be satisfied with politicians and members of the development establishment saying his money is being well spent," says Conservative development spokesman, Andrew Mitchell. "They want it independently evaluated outside that system."

Liberal Democrat development spokesman, Michael Moore, also wants a closer watch: "We understand that people are very concerned about money disappearing through corruption," he says. "But too often that corruption exists in some of the poorest countries in the world with the poorest systems. We've got to help those countries become better stewards of that money."

But the government development minister, Gareth Thomas, insists such measures are not necessary.

"We have a series of checks on how our aid is spent. Every programme is evaluated on an annual basis," he says, adding: "Look behind the glitter because there are very different Indias with many poor people living in the slums in Mumbai.

"We believe that some of our aid should be used to help build up institutions and try and get more effective state more able to protect its citizens, and more able to invest in its own basic services as well.

"I also think it's in Britain's interest that we help developing countries improve the situation for their poorest people because that in turn helps in range of other ways that makes a difference in the UK."

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