Now growing aspirations are creating a huge demand for toilets and Prime Minister Narender Modi has promised to build 100 million toilets across the country.
The irony, however, is that existing community toilets are falling into disrepair. A few years after they are built, they are not fit for use.
The community toilet complex at Savda Ghevra in North West Delhi is a case in point. It is decrepit and broken down and appears to be fit for demolition. Over 22 of the 40 toilet seats are non-functional.
This is the fate of a five-year-old community toilet that has no operation and maintenance plan.
But let's begin at the beginning.
This is Shalu's life as she knows it. The 21 year old is a student of BA second year at Delhi University's School of Open Learning. Home is a 6 feet by 10 feet room at block 18 in Kalyanpuri, one of the oldest jhuggi jhopdi clusters in East Delhi.
It is a space shared by five adults: her parents who work as tailors and her two brothers. There is a bed and a cooking area but it is too small to build the toilet that the family needs. They use a corner to bathe and urinate. A hole in the wall is an outlet to the open drain outside.
Only 45 per cent of Delhi has sewage connection.
Says Shalu, "We use it when no is around. If someone is at home, we ask them to step out.
It is difficult but we have to manage."
The 1,200 families living in the cluster where earlier served by a community toilet, but it was closed down by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi or MCD seven years ago. To access a toilet now, they walk one km to Khichripur.
Babita, Shalu's neighbour, recalls how difficult it was to walk to the toilet when she was pregnant. "My hands and feet were swollen. Sometimes I would feel giddy. So I would take a break and sit down somewhere."
With no toilets, children defecate in the open drains outside their homes, the fecal matter creating an unhealthy environment for the residents. The toilet complex at Khichripur compounds their indignity. Dirty and poorly maintained, it fails to meet appropriate standards. There are no dust bins, no system to flush. Nearly 10 of the 40 toilets seats are clogged but they are neither clean nor kept locked to users, aggravating the unsanitary conditions. With the toilet complex closed between 10 pm and 5 am, many users continue to resort to open defecation in the forested area nearby.
Vinod Kumar Sharma, MCD sanitary inspector, blamed women for throwing cloth into the toilets, clogging them. His workers had tried to make them work, but failed.
"What is the solution? If I install a number of dustbins personally, the next morning they will be gone," said Mr Sharma.
At another toilet complex in Kalyanpuri, sanitation workers give us a glimpse of the operating and maintenance problems.
Dinesh Kumar, MCD sanitation worker, said, "When we go to clean the toilets, we are often shouted at by people consuming smack there. They ask us to stop our work. They are capable of slashing our faces with a razor blade. So we stay away and don't clean those areas."
His colleague Bansi requests us to appoint a guard at the toilet. "I face a lot of problems. I clean one place and the women make a mess somewhere else. They defecate anywhere. I don't have any equipment to clean the place. I throw mud and scoop it on a plate. Even the pipe has not been spared. It has been broken at multiple points and I get wet. There's no brush, no broom to clean the mess. Should I use my hands?"
Women of the community have been going from pillar to post for nearly seven years, demanding a community toilet complex near their cluster; the cause brought them together to form the Mahila Pragati Manch
About a year ago, the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board or DUSIB or started construction on a toilet complex with 52 toilet seats in the block 18 cluster. 26 seats are for women and 26 for men; the Manch is monitoring the construction and keeping a check on materials. They have asked for a higher wall between the men's and women's toilets and guards for security.
However, the question is once this toilet complex is operational, will it go the way of old ones? Construction of new community toilet complexes like this one is only one half of the sanitation story. The other half is operation and maintenance. Despite its obvious significance, operation and maintenance has not received the necessary focus.
Government agencies like DUSIB and MCD have no new solutions for revitalising the public delivery systems.
At Kalyanpuri, the DUSIB has taken tentative steps to partner with the community in the monitoring and supervision of toilets. But the engagement is yet to take off in a meaningful, long-term manner.
There are also questions about the financial viability of existing policies for maintenance of toilet buildings and sewer connections, for provision of electricity and water supply, for hiring caretakers and 24-hour cleaning staff.
"We want the government to prepare for it. It should make an adequate budget allocation, spread awareness and involve the community to participate actively. It can't achieve success otherwise," said Vimla, a member of the Mahila Pragati Manch.
There is an unmistakable sense of deja vu as we visit a community toilet complex near the jhuggi jhopri cluster of Raghuveer Nagar, Rajouri Garden, in West Delhi.
We are accompanied by Anita Bhargava, who started a citizen's initiative to make sanitation in Delhi world class, four years ago.
Women bathe in the open outside, stringing up their sarees as make-shift walls for some semblance of privacy.
Most of them belong to Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat and are hawkers in the old clothes market nearby. Approximately 6,000 people live in the cluster.
"There are no taps, there is no water, there are no doors. There is no electricity in there, there is not a single bulb. So it's really difficult to convince people to use toilets when the condition is like that. I don't think you and me can use this toilet," said Anita Bhargava.
There are different management systems for the city's toilets. Toilets like the one in Raghubir Nagar are maintained by municipal employees. Some toilets were given to NGOs to maintain on a 30-year contract. But that too failed since there was no revenue model. The contracts were flawed and monitoring systems non-existent.
Manjinder Singh Sirsa, a Shiromani Akali Dal MLA from Rajouri Garden, said, "For the last 18 years, these NGOs have been handling these toilets, but they have done nothing to manage these toilets. They only subcontracted it further. We don't have a management system and we don't have good contracts. You need people who will say, 'I will manage 100 clusters of toilets and provide the best facilities, you hand it over to me and I will generate revenue'. But our system will object to the fact that revenue is being generated."
Anita Bhargava agrees, "Give the contract to large facility monitoring companies. Make the contract attractive so that it's an economically viable contract for a large facilities management company and then monitor it carefully. Get a daily report from them on the condition of the toilets, get citizen monitoring and if there is a false report, the penalty should be extremely high."
There are about 700 slum clusters or jhuggi jhopdis in Delhi. Almost 3 lakh families living in these slums are in dire need of basic services.
Amar Nath, CEO of the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board, said, "If we go by the terms of accepted standards available for providing toilet seats to people, almost 40 per cent of the people may not have toilets. An estimated 20-30 percent of what is available may not be functioning at all. But now, in view of the Prime Minister's focus on slums, our organisation is also gearing up for that. Our budget for toilets has increased by almost twice since last year and we have identified various issues and we are working on that."
One issue is the multiplicity of agencies. All of them need to play their role in making Delhi open-defecation free. DUSIB maintains a majority of the slum toilets now, but it directly does not provide cleaning facilities - that job is the responsibility of the municipal corporations. Another agency, the Delhi Jal Board, is responsible for sewer connections to toilets. Both DUSIB and MCD say they want to outsource the operation and maintenance of toilets.
Manish Gupta, Commissioner of East Delhi and South Delhi Municipal Corporations, said, "Our bids have recently been opened. What I plan to do in the South Municipal Corporation is that the earning from the advertisement on this toilet block can automatically compensate for the operation. We want to go in for facility management services."
And finally, the best toilet story...a story of then and now!
The toilet complex is at Nizammudin basti, where about 25 per cent of the residents do not have toilet facilities. Close to the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya, the basti sees lakhs of pilgrims and visitors every year.
Yet, of the two municipal toilet complexes in the area, only one was in use. Even here the toilet infrastructure was defunct and damaged. Open defecation was therefore common.
Over six years ago, under a public private partnership initiative with the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, the Aga Khan Development Network or AKDN began to rebuild and upgrade the community toilets in the basti.
This is the larger of the two facilities which was re-launched a year ago. Clean, airy and well lit, there are cubicles for bathing and courtyards for washing clothes. Dustbins and steel pans make maintenance easy.
Shveta Mathur, Programme Officer of Aga Khan Development Network, said, "We have done a single shaft which has individual stacks from all the toilet cubicles so that if there is a problem with one cubicle, then the piping is individual and the whole line doesn't get choked up. Many times we see that the quality of construction and the quality of infrastructure that has been laid in at the first time is also very inadequate and that leads to problems in maintainenece . The minute you get in adequate light and ventilation, you eliminate the use of electricity throughout the day, so that reduces costs.
A local self- help group, the Rehmat Nigraani Samooh, is managing the toilet complexes.
There's staff for continuous cleaning, a manager by day and a security guard at night. Two cubicles are open to users at night.
Announcements on the public address system remind users to be responsible, to use the dustbins, the flush, and not to waste water.
We join the group members as they hold their monthly meeting. They have received intensive training in how they could educate the people to use the facility, as well as in banking and record keeping.
Globally community toilets are prone to vandalism. But regular supervision by the group members has gone a long way in reducing this.
"Some people have very bad habits. They get drunk and frequently get into fights. Outsiders would have found it difficult to handle them. Since we belong to the community we are able to deal with them," said Azhar, a member of the Rehmat Nigraani Samooh.
Even the problems of littering is under check
According to Shveta," If the toilets are well maintained and a place is kept clean from the very beginning, the tendency or human nature would be to maintain it that way."
There is a user fee: residents can get a family pass of Rs 120 for five members for a month, while visitors have to pay per use. The income generated meets 60 per cent of the cost of management. The rest is subsidized by the AKDN.
The model could be adapted to other parts of the city by applying economies of scale. It could make the dream of an open defecation free capital that much closer to being realised.