A lens on the future of urban WASH planning in India

Lessons from Masters in Urban Infrastructure students at CEPT University

By Amita Bhakta


Figure 1: Meeting Prof. Mona Iyer and Siddh Doshi at the Faculty of Planning, CEPT University

Ahmedabad. A city at the heart of many of Gujarat’s industries with lots of diversities and plenty of contrasts and a rich culture. I arrived in Ahmedabad in mid-January as I embarked on a 7-week personal field visit to explore the different ways in which local institutions are addressing a wide range of different water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) issues on the ground. I went to India with an open mind and to expect the unexpected, and to see the reality of the WASH sector there that I have been researching on  for the past two years. For me on a personal level, despite being of Gujarati heritage and having visited the state before, I was able to see India in the capacity of a WASH expert for the first time (which also means I can now recognise desludging trucks and Vacutags very easily on busy roads!). Before I arrived, I was expecting to learn from academics and professionals about the way in which urban planning and WASH provisions are interlinked and employed in practice. My first lessons, however, came from a group of Masters students when I paid a two-day visit to the Faculty of Planning at CEPT University, in amongst my explorations of WASH and urban planning during a personal trip to Ahmedabad. In this blog, I share reflections on a visit I made to the Faculty as part of my research trip to Ahmedabad and my experiences as a guest at thesis reviews for Masters in Urban Infrastructure students.

CEPT University campus is truly a beautifully wonderful sanctuary in amongst the bustle of the city, with the ingenious architecture of BV Doshi, the founder of the University who recently passed away in January. On my visit to the campus during my personal journey and adventures, I was just awestruck as I escaped the sounds of the relative noise of the rickshaws and cars of the city to relative serenity.  But gradually, it dawned on me that this is precisely what urban planning more broadly is about: designing spaces for users of urban infrastructure. After a long-awaited first in-person meeting with two colleagues and friends, Prof. Mona Iyer, Dean of the Faculty of Planning, and Siddh Doshi, a PhD student and Masters programme executive, I was to have the honour of taking a two-day journey into Masters students’ research projects, as I sat with them and Prof. Saswat Bandhyopadyay as a guest at the ongoing thesis reviews.

Figure 2 and 3: CEPT University campus, Ahmedabad

Students tackling India’s modern day WASH challenges

As we sat at the start of the reviews, Mona handed me a list of student profiles with their names, photos, and the topics of their proposed directed research projects for the year. As I gazed down the list, there were key words that just leapt off the page. ‘Climate’. ‘Resilient’. ‘Infrastructure’. ‘Schools’. ‘Cities’. ‘Plan’. Before any of the students had even said a word of their presentations, I could not help but smile to myself. It had struck me that climate change is not something obscure, but something which these students are very much experiencing the lived reality of and are keen to address the related challenges arising, across so many different contexts in India.

For the students, it was not only about understanding these problems related to climate resilient WASH provisions, but critically about identifying the solutions. I gained a lot of insights into the practical frameworks in which urban sanitation planning happens, and as the students presented the plans for their research it became clear to me how they were trying to embed what they sought to learn from their projects from the outset. After a few years of reading about Indian WASH policies, the picture started to become clearer for me as  an academic and WASH practitioner as I began to link words on a page to places and contexts. The two days taught me how the next generation of planners are not only willing to look at existing WASH issues from different angles, but also that they are bold enough to explore these in contexts across India and its’ neighbouring countries, that remain relatively under-discussed by the WASH sector, such as hilly regions and ship-building coastal communities.

What lies in the future of WASH planning in India?

Applying WASH solutions and linking research to practice is always a key challenge for the sector as a whole. I too have faced similar challenges I am currently trying to address regarding my own work on planning and delivering WASH services for perimenopausal women. But for the future of WASH planning, the larger picture has to be considered throughout, and we have to be willing to adapt our existing work and practice to be resilient to global challenges such as climate change and more. In my initial days spent in Ahmedabad, the experiences of the thesis reviews left me with great optimism that the next generation of planners are well-versed in the issues of the day and over time will build the networks and expertise to tackle India’s pressing challenges head on. The students made it clear: it is not enough only to build WASH infrastructure and continue with business as usual. Things need to change. CEPT’s students have taught me a lot already, will continue to teach me in times ahead, and will have a lot to teach others in future.


Thank you to Prof. Mona Iyer, Prof. Saswat Bandhyopadyay and Siddh Doshi for inviting me as a guest at the ongoing thesis reviews during my research trip to Ahmedabad, and to the Masters in Urban Infrastructure students at the Faculty of Planning, CEPT University, for teaching me so much about WASH infrastructure planning in India.