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Topic / Poverty, Inequality and Opportunity

An Effective Public Private Partnership Solution for Addressing Sanitation in Slums: The Suvidha Centers in India

In 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 57% of the global population (4.6 billion people) used a safely managed sanitation service, and over 1.5 billion people still do not have basic sanitation services, such as private toilets.1 Sanitation remains an important focus globally under Sustainable Development Goals.2

The sanitation situation in India, at the start of 2014, was severally critical with 500 million people defecating in the open.3 Over the last decade, India pumped billions into sanitation through the Swachh Bharat Mission or the Clean India Mission.4, 5 More than 100 million individual toilets and 230,000 community and public toilets were built between 2014 and 2019.6

While the ideal solution is a safely managed private toilet, community and public toilets provide a practical alternative in the interim and therefore, are critical to provide safe sanitation to people in urban slums. The World Bank estimated that in 2020, 35% of 1.4 billion Indians were living in urban areas, of which 49% were in informal slum settlements.7 Finding workable solutions for slum sanitation is complicated because of high density, limited existence of basic services and right of way in urban slums, and residents often lack ownership rights. The government built the community and public toilets on a scale, but the user footfall gradually declined due to poor maintenance, cleaning, and upkeep of shared sanitation facilities.

Innovation in Addressing Urban Sanitation in India

The national missions triggered an increase in innovative approaches by the private sector and social enterprises for addressing the slum sanitation challenges and many models emerged. One such model is Suvidha (‘convenience’ in Hindi) centers: modern and large community water and sanitation complexes in Mumbai slums, 15 of which have been built in the last few years, offering much potential for replication elsewhere.

Photos 1 and 2. Left: View of Ghatkopar Slum. Right: Suvidha Center with Laundromat.

The model is a Public Private Partnership (PPP) with Unilever, India (HUL) as the anchor corporate (under its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiative) and it brought together HSBC, and JSW Foundation to pool funding for the project.8 Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the government agency, provided land and access to the proposed sites, which were typically old and defunct community toilet complexes in slum areas. Many development partners, not-for-profits and consultants were engaged for technical support, prepare scale-up and governance plans, direct engagement with community members and communication campaigns and coordinate daily center operations. Partners, for example, involved United Way Mumbai, Pratha, Ernst & Young, and others.

Under the arrangement, each center is contracted by the BMC for three to five years and the contracts are extendable. Under the Memorandum of Understanding, BMC provided land and required approvals for the new Suvidha centers, and HUL was the private partner to set up and operate the centers as per the agreed standard operating processes, comply with the local rules, and regulations and share regular operational key performance indicators and knowledge materials. BMC can replicate or expand the model if they wish to. The operating model has evolved in the last few years with innovative ideas such as SMS-linked updates to customers for monthly pass renewals.

The program funding was mobilized under the CSR regulations, that came into effect in 2014 and mandated companies to spend 2% of their average net profit over the past three financial years for specified social impact categories including water and sanitation.9

The model demonstrated a sustainable and scalable model for slum areas in Mumbai, with a current population of 21.3 million.10 In the Greater Mumbai region, 41.3% of inhabitants live in slums, that is 9 million people. It is also one of the most densely populated cities in the world, standing at 73,000 people per square mile. A standard Suvidha center includes toilets, drinking water, showers, and a laundromat. The biggest center recently opened in Dharavi, which has 111 toilets, has a compact land footprint, can serve 50,000 people a year, and saves 6.5 million liters of fresh water by reusing treated wastewater and rainwater harvesting.11 HUL estimated that these 15 centers benefit 400,000 people per year, save more than 100 million liters of water and they have educated 600,000 people on safe sanitation behaviors through communication campaigns.12

Engaging with the Local Community

The centers have strong community ownership having been designed with local input, and with community members responsible for operational sustainability, monitoring, and controlling vandalism. NGO partners fostered community awareness around safe sanitation practices and health linkages and sometimes mouth publicity generates curiosity about the centers. Many people come to see the centers because they want to want to see a “one crore ka bathroom” (a toilet worth $150,000)!

The centers also provide livelihood opportunities to local women, youth, and others as the roles of cleaners, washers, laundry managers, center operators have emerged. Women specifically have experienced increased agency, economic mobility, and flexibility to manage their time because of these centers.

Financial Sustainability and Challenges

On average, 50% of the revenue comes from laundromats, 30% from monthly passes subscribed to by the community members, and the rest from walk-ins, shower usage, and water services. To balance affordability and sustainability, the centers operate with a tiered pricing structure. While the standard charge is Rs. 3 per use, monthly passes priced at Rs. 150 for a family of five ensures continuous revenue predictability. Though the price is higher than BMC passes, people are still willing to pay the price due to the high quality of services and cleanliness. Subscription of monthly Suvidha passes bring long-term business continuity, and revenue predictability for the centers.

Further, the customers of the laundromat found its prices attractive as they were cheaper than other facilities. It was observed that the laundry model does not necessarily represent local community ownership as the customer base is wider than the local people.

The facility does not send away visitors if they cannot pay. However, they are encouraged to get a pass regularly and are informed how their contribution would help to keep the facility clean and running. It is observed by the center managers that most locals would enroll for the monthly passes when engaged in a constructive dialogue. Word of mouth among the community has been very effective in attracting new customers, as users are positive about the centers.

A center manager highlighted that their biggest problem is still to convince people to use the Suvidha centers at a higher price than that of the government-run toilets. Local and urban development patterns play a role. People in the older settlements, with families living for generations, are easier to convince because they have a sense of belonging to the place and want to contribute to upkeep the facilities. These communities have faced consequences of poor sanitation, safety, specifically for women and young girls, and health issues and benefited from educational programs on safe sanitation practices, and behavior change campaigns. These factors are missing in newer settlements with higher numbers of migrants and people are more reluctant to pay for services.

Learning for Scale and Replication

The experience of Suvidha centers is positive and offers opportunities for replication. The centers provide an important service to the community, provide employment, build capacity among workers and are financially sustainable. The model has matured through community participation and adopted to include the experiences from the field and learned from pilot centers. The poor state of water, sanitation and hygiene in urban slums is a threat to public health and environment condition and has direct public policy relevance. Sustenance of urban sanitation solutions is essential for India and developing countries. The model presents the following key success factors:

  • Innovative collaboration and partnerships: The model is based on corporate partnerships which have relied on trust and willingness to contribute resources and expertise for the program from top senior leadership. Government has played a critical role in creating a reliable pipeline of future sites, seamless approval processes, right of way, water and electricity connections and knowledge transfers platforms and future scale-up.
  • Self-sustainable model: The laundromat is the biggest revenue contributor, and the operating model is agile enough to capture feasible value-added services.
  • Community ownership is essential: Participatory approaches have built trust and encouraged community members to use the facilities, pay for them and spread positive word on user experience that led to increased footfall. The role of community members in operations and maintenance has also developed a strong ownership.  
  • Standardized processes and transparent governance model led to efficient scale-up and management.
  • Design focused on environmentally sustainable practices such as solar panels for energy conservation, rainwater harvesting, water recycling and onsite wastewater treatment.
  • Professionalization: High-quality infrastructure, standardized O&M model and formal contracting, consistent user experience, and workforce development with defined career paths led to demonstrate professional standards at Suvidha centers and encourage use.

  1. WHO, “Sanitation,” accessed February 12, 2024, ↩︎
  2. United Nations Western Europe, “Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 6),” accessed February 21, 2024, ↩︎
  3. UNICEF India, “Water, Sanitation and Hygiene,” accessed February 12, 2024, ↩︎
  4. Val Curtis, “Explaining the Outcomes of the ‘Clean India’ Campaign: Institutional Behaviour and Sanitation Transformation in India,” BMJ Global Health 4, no. 5 (September 2019): e001892. ↩︎
  5. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, “Swachh Bharat Misson Urban,” accessed February 10, 2024, ↩︎
  6. Press Information Bureau, “Over 11 Crore Toilets & 2.23 Lakh Community Sanitary Complexes Built across All States/UTs Under Swachh Bharat Mission – Grameen,” accessed February 12, 2024, ↩︎
  7. World Bank, “Population living in slums, urban, India,” accessed February 12, 2024, ↩︎
  8. Unilever, “HUL and JSW Announce Strategic Partnership to Scale up ‘Suvidha,'” June 22, 2023, ↩︎
  9. Ministry of Corporate Affairs, “CSR in India,” accessed February 12, 2024, ↩︎
  10. World Population Review, “Mumbai Population 2024,” accessed February 12, 2024, ↩︎
  11. Unilever, “Our Biggest Suvidha Centre Inaugurated at Dharavi, Mumbai,” February 9, 2022, ↩︎
  12. HUL and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, “Suvidha Transforming Urban Sanitation Play Book 2023.” ↩︎