Bringing Sanitation into the Spotlight

As a child in India, Sunil Bhatia, PhD, used to bike past two slums every day on his way to school. As he did, he would see people defecating openly in the streets because they had no toilet to use.

Today, there are 2.5 billion people in the world who do not have access to a toilet, Bhatia told attendees at a session here honoring him with the 2015 APA International Humanitarian Award for his work bringing sanitation to India’s urban poor. Bhatia has brought “a taboo subject — open defecation — into the spotlight to show how lack of sanitation is connected to psychological constructs of dignity, humiliation and safety,” the award committee said.

Bhatia, a psychology professor at Connecticut College who studies culture and identity in the context of globalization and transnational migration, founded the group Friends of Shelter Associates (FSA) in 2005. The group works with Shelter Associates, an NGO that runs sanitation and other projects in his native Pune, India. To date, Bhatia said, FSA has funded more than 625 toilets that reach 4,000 people, and just received a grant to build 3,000 more toilets.

The toilets — which cost just $250 to $300 — change lives. Exposure to feces spreads diarrhea, cholera, typhoid and other diseases that kill millions of children each year.

“The lack of sanitation wreaks havoc on the physical and psychological health of the urban poor,” Bhatia said.

The hardships go beyond disease. Bhatia told of a woman who was dying of AIDS, who had to walk half a kilometer to defecate behind the railway tracks. “A simple toilet eased her life in her dying days,” he said. And a lack of toilets can lead to fear and physical violence — women have told Shelter Associates that they are scared of going to the bathroom alone, and that they may limit themselves to before sunrise and after sunset because they fear harassment from men.

For these women, and others, “having a toilet represents a ‘life-changing dream,'” Bhatia said.

For more information about Friends of Shelter Associates, visit

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