In 'world-class' city, shit happens

Published: Nov 18, 2012, 11:04 IST | Kareena Gianani |

There isn't much to cheer about Mumbai's new railway plans, development goals and gentrification when most of its population does not even have access to basic sanitation. In the run up to World Toilet Day, which falls on November 19, Kareena N Gianani speaks to those who are fighting for better sanitation facilities in the city

According to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) Additional Municipal Comissioner Mohan Adtani, Mumbai has 1,742 public toilets for 1 crore 25 lakh people. “We know we need more toilets,” he says, “but space a is a major hurdle in their construction.”

November 19 is World Toilet Day and Mumbai, along with the rest of the country, continues to struggle with sanitation issues as ever. We look at three areas that need urgent attention from the authorities.

In most parts of Mumbai, access to functional public toilets remains a distant dream. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

‘Sanitation not on Railways’ mind’
Madhu Kotian, president of the Mumbai Rail Pravasi Sangh, the city’s railway commuters’ group, points to a heap of rubble at the end of platform 1 at Mulund Railway Station. According to the 45 year-old Mulund resident, the state of this unassuming corner is a sign of things to come for Mumbai’s rail commuters.

“Like the Western Railway (WR), the Central Railway (CR), too, is gung-ho about introducing 15-car rakes on this line. But the extension of the platforms will happen at the cost of sanitation — this toilet at the end of the platform, and another one at Bhandup station, have been demolished to make space for the 15-car rake. Where will the passengers go if this happens at every railway station?” Kotian says he plans to complain to the authorities but it will take a year for any action. “We don’t really have much to celebrate about the 15-rakes, do we?”

According to Kotian, more than 75 lakh passengers commute by the WR and CR and the extension of rakes will increase this capacity by 66 per cent. However, no steps have been taken to ensure that the extra passengers have access to as many toilets on railway stations. “The railways are yet to resolve the problem at CST, Dadar, Kurla, Kalyan, Bandra, Andheri and Borivli stations, which have few toilets but are accessed by both local and outstation

Sanitation at the railways can be termed haphazard at best. “For instance, there are two toilets on platform number 4 (for fast trains) at Vikhroli, Bhandup and Mulund stations. These platforms are used by commuters only for a couple of hours in the morning, because fast trains do not ply here for the rest of the day. There are not enough toilets on the slow platforms, and the person manning them on the vacant, fast platform barely makes any money,” says Kotian.

He is currently fighting for the plight of women commuters, who have even fewer sanitation facilities at stations. He says that the WR and CR plan to install escalators at railway stations. “They don’t construct toilets citing lack of space. Where, are the escalators coming from? Not a single passenger has demanded escalators at railway stations.”

There are bigger issues to solve first, he believes, such as the maintenance of toilets. “Till 2000, toilets at railway stations were maintained by the railways, and they did a good job. Now, the private contractors don’t care about the maintenance. If they are blacklisted, they register their company under a different name and continue with their shoddy job.”

‘Women need to pee too’
Last month, city-based Akshara Centre, an organisation which works against gender discrimination and violence, began a survey of toilets at railway stations to study their impact on the sanitation and safety of women in the city.

Nandita Shah, co-director, Akshara Centre, says the problem arises from the State’s assumption that women do not access public spaces such as railway stations at night — which is why toilets at railway stations shut at 10 pm. “The toilets that do stay open are neither well-lit nor adequately guarded. The keys to the ladies’ toilets are often given to a nearby hawker at the station.” Women, she adds, have to pay to access toilets in the city, whereas men have free urinals.

In April this year, Akshara Centre was one of the 35 NGOs in the city that launched the Right To Pee signature campaign, which collected signatures to submit to the BMC and demand free, adequate public restroom facilities for women across the city. According to a 2009 study by the Centre For Civil Society, Mumbai has only 132 public toilets for women, many of which barely functional, compared to 1,534 for men across the city. “We were promised more toilets after the Right To Pee campaign but now the government cites budget constraints. Meanwhile, women in the city drink less water throughout the day so they don’t have to worry about accessing the city’s pathetic public toilets,” says Shah wryly.

New plans on improving sanitation in the city aren’t working either, she feels. “Take the example of the new plan to provide advertising space outside public toilets. The resultant toilets along the Western Express Highway now have ads but no access roads for people, and lie vacant.”

‘Solution lies in the community’
Mumbai’s largest sanitation problems may be the lack of public toilets in the city, and construction of those in the slums, but the answer, according to Leni Chaudhri, may just lie in a small neighbourhood community.

Chaudhri is a member of the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, the Indian circle of the People’s Health Movement, a worldwide movement across 70 countries tries to establish equitable development through primary health care. “There are a number of reasons why sanitation in the city has failed — but, surprisingly, the only successful model I have seen has come from smaller communities who take up ownership of their toilets. Jari Mari in Kurla, for instance, has a strong civil society involvement. Over the past 12 years, people have rallied in their ward offices for water and sanitation. Now, a group of women collect a minimal amount to maintain their public toilets.” Areas which struggle with acute neglect, adds Chaudhri, are Shivaji Nagar and Rafique Nagar in Govandi.

Mumbai’s sanitation woes are a result of the gap between toilets’ construction and their maintenance. “Construction doesn’t necessarily mean the toilets are functional, and our budgets don’t take this aspect into consideration. The BMC does not map the city accurately to construct toilets. By 2003, the BMC built 300 toilet blocks without really surveying the population density of areas under consideration. For instance, the general impression is that Dharavi needs more toilets, but nothing was done about slums in Govandi, in spite of the fact that the population was moving in that direction.” As per norms, she adds, there should be adequate urinals, baths and toilets built in the city. “In Mumbai, peeing in public isn’t a huge cultural or social issue — so the civic body only goes on building more toilets, because they feel urinals aren’t that necessary! We can’t have good sanitation until this mindset changes.”

‘Involve people’
> Dr Mahtab Bamji, a Hyderabad-based nutritionist, worked with the Dangoria Trust in Medak district on two sanitation projects between 1996 and 2002, to construct low-cost latrines for locals across five villages. “One project involved building a UNICEF-approved model of a two-pit latrine model surrounded by a four foot-tall cement ring. We constructed 150 laterines. The beneficiaries were paid Rs 100 each. You can’t sustain such an effort without people’s participation.”
> Dr Bamji worked in a village where stagnant water was the biggest contributor to the village’s morbidity rate. “We built latrines with soakage pits. The waste water went into the first pit, which had a partition to facilitate sedimentation and flowed into another pit where stones and gravel were deposited, that helped filter the impurities. It helped bring the morbidity rate down considerably.”

> An attitudinal change is important, says Dr Bamji. “In a survey of adolescent girls in five villages in Medak, all of them said they needed a gas connection, not a toilet. Access to sanitation is still a distant dream for most parts of India, and the government needs to change that.” 

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