When you gotta go - and can't

Oct 30, 2018, 07:30 IST | C Y Gopinath

It's happened to you. And, it will happen again, when there are too few toilets for too many people

When you gotta go - and can't
In 2013, Mumbai counted 78,000 public toilet seats, an almost 64,000 shortfall from the estimated need

C Y Gopinath"A woman shocked commuters in Bangkok after she was spotted urinating during rush-hour traffic. A video posted to Facebook shows the woman lean out of a taxi and urinate as other vehicles drive by. It is not clear when the incident took place."

The video was watched over 1.7 million times on Facebook and elicited salacious comments, mainly from expatriate foreigners, about the woman's anatomy, her gender, possible ethnicity (had to be Chinese, no Thai would be so shameless). One boor rated her "8 for the bums, 7 for bravery in distress, 10 for thinking out of the taxi and 9 for the general entertainment". Only a few noted that men pee in public along the expressway all the time and no one posts videos of them.

Bangkok has 8.28 million people but it is abundant with clean, dry toilets. How desperate she must have been, I thought, Thai or Chinese, to throw the door open and modesty to the winds, and do what she did.

Mumbai, larger, more chaotic, had 17 million people according to the 2011 census, close to 22 million today. Traffic is glacial most days of the week and distances are daunting. We don't discuss such low topics in civil society, I know, but it is a fair question: what is a person to do, squirming in a car in congealed highway traffic, when he can't keep it in any more? What is the prescribed behaviour?

In 2013, Mumbai counted 78,000 public toilet seats, an almost 64,000 shortfall from the estimated need. But even 142,000 toilets would have meant one toilet per 50 Mumbaikars. Translation: a single hole in the ground would have to serve the defecatory needs of 3,000 people - five years ago.

I didn't know there was a World Toilet Day, November 19, when the gods of the sandaas are officially propitiated. Last year, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation announced the construction by December 2018 of 18,818 multi-storey public toilets, of which 15,774 would replace existing dilapidated and unusable toilets. This is a good place for some thoughts.

1. The numbers don't add up. Mumbai needs at least five times as many toilets as it has announced, to meet the WHO standard of a toilet per 30 persons. With the upcoming multi-storeyed toilets, each seat would have to service multiples of 3,000 people.

2. Women get left out. Shitpots are patriarchal, friendlier to males. Raising a stink about this is the Right To Pee movement, an association of 33 women's organisations. An RTI they filed in 2012 found that a mere 37% of Mumbai's 10,381 toilet seats were female-friendly. Six years ago.

3. A toilet not maintained is a toilet not used. A Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation survey of why Indians did not use toilets built for them by the Swachh Bharat movement revealed that most would rather use the outdoors than a sloshy, fly-ridden, foul-smelling toilet.

4. Dry, not wet, is clean. The average public toilet devolves to a liquid mess from wet cleaning, rainwater and leaking faucets. Yes, we expect magic: somehow, the city that hasn't figured out how to pick up its own rotting garbage will create dry, clean-smelling and usable toilets for its masses. Really?

5. Peristalsis is a great leveller. That's the rhythmic muscle contractions that expel shit from a human body, and it recognises no caste, creed or income bracket. An Anil Ambani in his Royce would experience the pressure exactly as a rag-picker would. And, while you can negotiate with the bladder, the bowels know no reason. When you gotta go, you gotta go.

I know, I've experienced the utter shame and shamelessness of it personally. We were in a car returning from Karjat, inching along an expressway near Chembur. I had kept the beast at bay for two hours, since eating some ill-advised food en route. Now I was officially out of control.

Each of us has been through a version of that desperate moment, women more than men. My car pulled over under a flyover construction. Behind a tall corrugated wall, there was a deep pit for laying cables. Excretion with discretion was out. I didn't care who saw me, I was beyond dignity. That pit was my pit stop. But as I entered crouch mode, I heard the derisive hooting of construction workers high above. Educated, urban man in spectacles trying to download on a brand new road.

I fled back to the car, and somehow endured another 30 minutes without combusting, driving building to building inside a colony, begging watchmen for toilets, till I found a rotting, mossy booth behind a housing society. For the next few minutes, I was completely, utterly, helplessly human. I was that desperate woman in Bangkok. Only worse.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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