Travel and Tourism sans (clean) Toilets: Whither Incredible India?

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A travel enthusiast, I have found a travel buddy in my husband who is great at planning trips. While going through the list of travel ‘must-haves’ he has often recommended buying ‘pee-cups’ (for those who are unaware these are disposable female urination devices which allow women to pee while standing) hailing them as a necessary safeguard. Human biology makes women more vulnerable to contracting infections from dirty toilets, he would reiterate. For long I ignored his suggestions but yesterday, on ordering my first pack, I feel a sense of relief and here’s why.

Last year, on our way to a lesser known hill-station in Uttarakhand we made a night halt at Nainitaal, Uttarakhand – an extremely popular tourist destination in North India.  Little had I imagined that the hill station of such repute would have one of the filthiest public toilets I would come across. The biological urgency dictated me to use it but not without saying my prayers. To add to my anger, the guard seated outside (unmoved by the stench) calmly stretched his hand out, “Madam, paise (money)?” “For what?” I almost shouted. “haalat dekhi hai apne andar (have you seen the condition inside)? ”paani kaha ata hai safai karne ke liye, itna use kiya wo kaafi hai (where is the water to clean the toilets, at least you could use it).” he replied curtly. Defeated by the logic, I quietly handed him 5 rupees and walked off.

A stranger situation presented itself in a Sulabh toilet complex in Dalhousie, Himachal Pradesh – another popular tourist spot in the northern hills. It was about 7 am and two men were shaving inside the women toilets and when I pointed their attention to the “LADIES” board, one of them calmly replied,” Aa jao. Use kar lo (Come in. use the loo)”. I told them it wasn’t appropriate for them to be in there and they should go across to the men’s toilet. “Waha sheesha nai hai (there is no mirror there)” said one of them while continuing to shave. With no guard seated outside and unable to argue with my bladder bursting, I did use the loo but not without wondering how many women would have simply turned away seeing the men inside the ladies toilet and would I have dared to use it if it was 7pm instead of 7 am?

On another trip to Mcleodganj, again in Himachal Pradesh, my husband and I were out on an evening stroll. We had been walking for hours with no public toilet in sight. Not able to walk any further I rushed to a roadside restaurant asking if I could use the toilet. The women on the reception politely refused stating that only guests of the hotels and restaurant are allowed to use the facilities! Yes sure, that made valid business sense but wasn’t good news for my bladder given that there was no nearby facility I could use. “I would pay you to use it” I almost begged but she must have been trained well by senior management (since I am sure I wasn’t the first one to make such a request!) and was unmoved by my plight, I had no option but to continue walking but the terrible discomfort of doing so is something I would not forget easily.

None of this however compares to the disappointment we experienced during a family trip to Mathura – Vrindavan where according to Hindu mythology Lord Krishna spent his childhood days. We were appalled to see the condition of loos at Krishan Janmbhoomi (Lord Krishna’s birthplace) – a place of immense religious value and a major tourist attraction. The ladies toilet complex was extremely filthy making it impossible to even step in let alone use. But being out of options I did use it with dupatta tied firmly to my nose and part of my dignity ripped as I sat in a pool of filth. My mother-in-law and I had to live this horror not once but many times over during our trip.

Closer to home, the Surajkund Mela is an international crafts exhibition held annually in Faridabad district of Haryana is a huge cultural spectacle attracting lakhs of tourists. I have been a regular visitor over the last 3 years and have to relive the nightmare of using choked dirty toilets each time. When I posed a question about how such a place can afford to neglect the cleaning of toilets, the maintenance staff answered “aap subah aake dekha karo, ekdum saaf hota hai (you come in the morning and see its absolutely clean)”, “But that’s not the point…..” That’s all I could tell her as it was pointless to explain that these are toilets not showpieces that need to be cleaned once and would shine through the day!

To be fair, I have visited places with decent toilet facilities too especially down south. But unfortunately the filthy unusable ones far outnumber them. It does make me wonder why our tourism industry fails to realise the importance of such a basic necessity. But then maybe the answer is have we stressed on their importance enough? Yes, we all want clean and accessible toilets but the question is how bad? How many of us would take the lead in telling the agency in-charge at these popular tourist destinations/spots that each time a woman visits their dirty toilets or worse still, chooses to “hold on” she makes herself vulnerable to dangerous infectious diseases? Is it not the opportune time in the vision of “Swachh Bharat” to rate the travel destinations of “Incredible India” based on more than just great hotels? Would a travellers’ movement begin to ‘name and shame’ the offenders and reward the good performing ones to bring some economic sense into this otherwise neglected discussion?

Till that happens I am not travelling without my pack of ‘pee-cups!

— Medhavi Sharma, Assistant Director, FICCI and Program Assistant, India Sanitation Coalition. She has previously worked with NITI Aayog (the erstwhile Planning Commission), Government of India and SaciWATERs, Hyderabad on cross-sectoral issues related to the environment sector. She has co-authored a report titled, “Water in India: Situation and Prospects”, published by UNICEF and FAO. Her interests include travelling, reading and (pretty much everything about) wildlife.

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