This is the first of an seven-part series by BJP leader Shaina NC on sanitation in Mumbai.
In 2010, the United Nations passed a resolution to recognise the access to water and sanitation as a basic human right.
Shaina NC. Pic/Yogen Shah
When a new public urinal was being constructed in Mankhurd’s Maharashtra Nagar, little did Kalpana Pimple know that would be where she would meet her maker. On March 4, 2015, Kalpana, 45, went to the toilet as she did each morning. The floor below her collapsed due to long-term negligence, causing her to drown in the 10-foot septic tank filled with human excreta.
Who is to be held responsible for Kalpana’s ghastly death? And how many such deaths and accidents need to occur before the concerned authorities take action and improve living conditions for millions of Mumbaikars?
Mumbai needs more toilet complexes urgently
Kalpana’s death is but the tip of the iceberg. In October 2014, a 10-year-old boy died because a septic tank in a public toilet exploded! There are numerous similar accidents and deaths occurring on a daily basis that are a result of badly constructed, poorly maintained and grossly neglected community toilets across Mumbai.
Why is it that Mumbaikars have to stare death in the face even while accessing their basic human need to using the toilet? The main problem as I see it is about responsibility. According to the residents the toilet complex where Kalpana died had started deteriorating almost immediately after construction. The BMC failed to take any responsibility about the maintenance and blamed the residents’ association who they said was responsible for the maintenance of the toilet complex while the latter blamed the BMC.
The residents of Maharashtra Nagar insist they had written several letters in vain about the dangerous condition of the toilet complex to the BMC. Social activists told me that when they visited the site following Kalpana’s death, residents spoke of nothing but lack of political will and apathy. Following her death, the BMC shrugged off responsibility by claiming the toilet complex was overused!
The toilet, built under the government’s SSP scheme, should have been emptied at regular intervals. But the septic tank was full to the brim and would have exploded if it did not collapse. According to Rushva Parihar, research associate at the United Nations University, who works on sanitation in India, septic tanks are a dangerous choice of toilet construction if regular desludging doesn’t take place. There are alternative toilet models more suitable for areas with high water tables like Mumbai that the government should consider, especially when the toilets are not connected to the sewer system.
Dr Padmaja Keskar, Executive Health Officer, Public Health Department, BMC, tells me that the departments responsible need to pull up their socks and focus on building more toilets. “We need toilets everywhere – at our railway stations, on the highway, on the roads. Women are more affected by lack of toilets. Toilets must be built well and maintained regularly. Lighting, safety and facility – these are key in public toilets,” says Dr. Keskar.
However, from what I have seen, most public toilets are never maintained regularly and are host to countless problems as basic as no sewerage connections and no water. “The key is not only building toilets but building toilets that are safe not only for the people using them but also for the environment. In addition to building toilets, there needs to be equal amount of importance placed on maintaining them,” says Parihar.
As Mumbaikars, we are perhaps becoming immune to the loss of lives, which causes us to not be as outranged as we should be when such deaths occur as a result of sheer callousness of the authorities. Let Kalpana’s death not be a blip but a wakeup call. Questions need to be raised on why Kalpana and so many like her have to lose their lives over a basic need like using the toilet. Why should we lose even one life due to the negligence of corrupt corporators and contractors?
International recommendations for toilet usability are one public toilet for 10 people, while national projections have aimed to provide 1 for every 50 people. Toilets in Mumbai, however, are being used by nearly three times that national estimate. We need to construct many more toilet complexes or blocks and ensure that the responsibly for their maintenance is clearly demarcated to ensure that conflicts that resulted in Kalpana’s death do not re-occur.
Kalpana’s shocking death brings into sharp focus the clear lack of infrastructure and apathy of the concerned authorities that make public toilets in this city a breeding ground for death, disease and tragedy. We must take responsibility and help Kalpana’s children immediately and work fast to rectify the situation so that such tragedies do not occur again. No government official visited the slum and Kalpana’s children after her death. We need more active participation from the authorities responsible for providing public with basic amenities. We need accountability from those officers failing in their work.
Activists, researchers and experts alike inform me that demolishing current poorly maintained structures and building better toilets in their place is the need of the hour. I am outraged by Kalpana’s death and the aftermath and you must be too. There is no value for life in our country. We are all responsible for her death.
I urge every Mumbaikar to contribute towards Kalpana’s children by writing in to me at email@example.com or tweeting @shainaNC. This is, of course, not the solution to the problem but we have to do something!
Tomorrow: Why slum-dwellers are forced to defecate in the open