Megha Phansalkar tells WSSCC about her motivations, achievements and hopes for the future.

Story

Megha Phansalkar is an Urban Regional Planner and Social Entrepreneur, based in Mumbai, India, and has been a member of WSSCC since 2013. She is the South Asia representative on the WSSCC Steering Committee and works closely with the World Bank and the Indian Government.

Here, Megha tells WSSCC about her motivations, achievements and hopes for the future.

Megha portrait

In a nutshell, what do you do?

Since 2003 I’ve been working on community-driven sanitation with the Indian Government, World Bank and various national and international agencies.

My focus in recent times has been on the connections between the WASH sector, health and livelihoods, particularly in urban and slum settings.

What gets you out of bed every morning?

Passion and compassion. Passion for the importance of this sector and compassion for people being left behind.

I started in this sector when about 70% of the country were still defecating in the open. Today we are almost 100% open defecation-free (ODF). That has been a big journey.

I know how important this work is to people’s livelihoods and health. We must keep making progress in sanitation and water otherwise our work may be undone. For example, when water is unavailable, people slip back into practising open defecation because toilets stop functioning properly. And still so many women suffer health problems from the lack of knowledge and facilities to maintain good menstrual hygiene. 

When you look back on your career, what will you be most proud of in terms of your sanitation and hygiene work?

I would be proud of my role in helping my country achieve ODF status and of being able to share learning with colleagues in other countries. 

I think we have also been able to create a much better awareness of the health impacts of WASH, especially in the area of menstrual hygiene management (MHM). Creating a holistic view of WASH benefits means we can build an integrated approach to WASH.

What are the three biggest impacts COVID-19 has had on your work?

  1. Sanitation became the main culprit for the spread of COVID-19. My home city of Mumbai had the highest number of COVID cases in India. 60% of the urban population live in slums and because people have to share limited numbers of toilets, the virus spread fast. Community toilets became disease spreading hubs.
  2. The impact on livelihoods was huge. Lockdown meant no work for many people. There was a mass exodus. People walked for days to escape to rural areas where they could find employment and get food, or just feel safer. We could not get into slums to improve the sanitation situation.
  3. Reaching out to the community became difficult. Usually there are face to face interactions and then suddenly everyone was confined to their houses. Community connections stopped completely. ‘Corona warriors’ delivering emergency provisions were the only people who could move around.

There has been a positive impact however. Before COVID, there had been many years of hygiene messaging but it was not taken so seriously. COVID has made handwashing practices permanent and people now have a much bigger awareness.

What are the top three benefits of WSSCC membership?

  1. Networking with other members. 
  2. Getting insight into work in other countries. 
  3. Becoming a Steering Committee member and extending my arena. 

Tell us a good example of working with WSSCC and other WSSCC members in your country

There was a session in Rishikesh on inclusion. One of the main topics was how to bring the LGBT community into the sanitation mainstream. The insights were so shocking, that gender non-binary people can’t use women’s toilets nor men’s toilets. You never imagine people can have such a nightmare just to use toilets in public areas. Similar issues are found in scavenger communities.

We learn so much from each other. We created a report on inclusion issues that became part of national policy making.

The WSSCC Support Unit in India does great work. We have supported the Government with the Swachh Bharat Mission and brought issues around MHM, health and livelihoods into the WASH conversation.

The Sanitation and Hygiene Fund (SHF) will soon be launching. In the next five years, what difference do you hope the Fund will make in your country?

India has such a large population that for any global sanitation targets to be achieved, India must be involved in key initiatives.

As the country is now ODF, we will not be eligible for improvement grants but we look forward to being a partner country and to keep up the domestic and international momentum through our partnership with SHF.