Thinking Differently: Improving Sanitation on the Banks of the Ganga

Towards a Healthier Future
Photo: UNDP India

It’s 5 am. Lakshmi Vishwas, a 45-year-old mother of three, walks down to the field behind her house in the dark, carrying her lota (water-vessel) in one hand and guiding herself to a spot to defecate with the other. Lakshmi, a resident of Sridhar, a village in Sahibganj district on the banks of the Ganga, is not alone in this daily ritual. The fields of Sridhar are dotted with people like her who head to their plots of land before the sun rises. During the monsoons, the situation is worse. Flooding, gale winds and incessant rains make it impossible to find a place to safely defecate.


  • Women and young girls are deeply affected by the lack of toilets in their homes. Open defecation leaves them vulnerable to harassment, endangering their health and their safety.
  • The Ganga Rejuvenation partnership focuses on expanding access to sanitation by encouraging people to invest their own resources into building toilets that meet their needs.
  • To change behaviour towards sanitation, the local community is engaged at every step of the process, creating a sense of ownership.

For Lakshmi, having a toilet in her house is an absolute necessity. She had built a temporary toilet behind her house a few years ago, but it was destroyed in one of the floods, forcing her to defecate in the open again, risking her health and safety.

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 500 million Indians lack access to a toilet and proper sanitation facilities. But the ill-effects of the lack of toilets are more acutely felt by women and young girls. Having to defecate in the open leaves them vulnerable to harassment and humiliation, causing them to suppress their need to defecate until dark, in turn causing negative health effects. For people living on the banks of the Ganga, such as Lakshmi and her family, the situation is worse. Their waste flows into the river, contaminating their only source of water. “We consider the Ganga to be our mother, yet we treat her so badly,” says Lakshmi.

The Ganga Rejuvenation partnership between the National Mission for Clean Ganga, the Government of Jharkhand and the United Nations Development Programme aims to change this through a sanitation-linked livelihoods approach. The approach focuses on expanding access to sanitation by encouraging people to invest their own resources to build toilets that meet their needs. By prioritizing local ownership, the approach engages the community at every step of the construction process, making it more likely that families will actually use their toilets. The aim is also to ensure that behaviour towards sanitation changes by encouraging the creation of sanitation-linked micro-enterprises and providing incentives to women’s self-help groups for the construction of toilets.

The initiative, supported by the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, Government of India, holds regular sanitation campaigns discussing the benefits of toilets and best sanitation practices. After attending such an event, Lakshmi decided to have a toilet with a bathroom constructed in her house through the partnership. Her new cement toilet and bathroom is built right behind her house on elevated ground to protect it from floods, and comes with a leach pit that holds all the waste, stopping it from flowing into the Ganga. “So,” she says, “using it is very convenient. I’m not embarrassed or scared to go to the bathroom anymore.”

By encouraging local communities to think differently about hygiene and cleanliness, the partnership hopes to create a sustainable change in villages along the Ganga, reviving the river in the process. 

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