It feels wonderful to be a sanitation practitioner and expert, living in a time and in a country where sanitation is almost on the verge of becoming a national obsession in both policy talks and programme implementation. This has been triggered by the launching of Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) from the ramparts of Red Fort by Honourable Prime Minister of India Sri Narendra Modi.
SBM, the newest version in the not so long history of sanitation programmes in India, encompassed urban areas in its mission, increased the sanitation financing and linked open defecation free concepts on behaviour change with an unprecedented construction drive of individual household sanitation facilities across the country.
However, in spite of this much needed and renewed obsession with sanitation, there is hardly any paradigm shift or conscious efforts to re- engineer the sanitation programme in rural and urban India against the backdrop of our centuries old track record of dodging the issue. My thought on the main pillars of this process of re- engineering sanitation in India are based in breaking some key myths related to the sanitation programme in India. These are outlined below.
Myth # 1 – the cost of a sustainable household Toilet is Rs. 12000 as per incentive offered under SBM (Rural)
Perhaps this is the biggest myth among implementing organizations for both states and people. SBM offers an incentive for household toilet construction not a subsidy-. The results of this myth have been devastating to the sanitation sector. Consider this. Many implementing organizations in states and therefore people in rural areas have this notion that they have to construct a toilet in 12000 odd rupees received by government – means they trust that Rs. 12000 is the cost of a sustainable toilet in their household across a diverse and vast country like India.
Even a novice civil engineer will tell you that the cost of a sustainable household toilet will vary from place to place and will require some greater co-financing by the household as per their aspiration level, choice of material for construction and technology (e.g. Septic tank, twin pits, bio toilets etc.) and add on features such as storage tank, hand washing facilities etc. Therefore, it is important to take the message to the implementers of SBM and people that adherence to technical design and drawings of different kinds of sanitation systems for toilet construction and co- financing is key to sustainable sanitation, no matter what it costs. Based on their affordability and preferences, the household can choose a toilet design based on available on-site or off- site technologies in the area.
Year after year , there is increasing demands from state governments to the central government to increase the subsidy ( oops .. incentive) from Rs.12000 to up to Rs.25000 based on the understanding of state governments of what it costs to construct an household toilet ( latrine cum bathroom with hand washing facilities ). Obviously, state government’s want 100% of the cost of Individual household toilets to be subsidized. But there is a catch here. Catch number 1 is that the sense of ownership of a toilet which is completely constructed using government’s incentive is less therefore it is more unlikely to be used by all family members. Catch number 2 is the Community led Total Sanitation Approaches (CLTS) which triggers people’s action to become opendefecation free communities and has been widely used by developmental agencies in India for promotion of SBM. Prompting complete financial dependency for the construction of household toilets on government agencies (100% subsidy for cost of toilet approach) dismantles the very basic premise of CLTS- that people and communities can take charge to go for open defecation free using appropriate sanitation options ensuring sustained behaviour change based on community pressure. As a result, what we see of CLTS in India is a tool for Information, Education and Communication (IEC) rather than a tool for triggering community action in many cases.
Myth # 2 – The cost of sustainable sanitation is high and therefore this is a low priority among rural and urban poor.
Nothing can be as far from the truth as this notion. But this premise suits everyone and therefore it prevails as a deep rooted myth. So much so that even the poor have started believing in the status quo on sanitation. However, the good news is that it makes sense to invest in a sustainable household toilet by rural and urban poor. Consider economic benefits from sustainable household sanitation. If you explain to an ordinary citizen thatIndia loses 6% of its GDP due to lack of adequate sanitation, the likeliness that this resonates with them is bleak except for being informed of some interestingeconomic data. However when you explain toa family of 5 persons that by not having a household toilet,their family is losing out annually an amount of Rs. 10250 /- approximately on health expenditurewhich could be easily saved, There is a high chance that that you get an affirmative nod, listening ears and engaging minds.
Figure-1: Loss due to inadequate sanitation
Most of the estimates say that a sustainable and aspirational individual household toilet (a latrine cum bathroom with handwashing facility) is achievable within Rs.15000 to Rs.30000 per unit (connection to sewerage /Twin Pit/ Septic Tank with seepage pit /Bio Tanks with Seepage pits). However, the incentive to the eligible beneficiaries under SBM urban remains limited to Rs. 12000/ per household in rural areas and Rs. 8000 to Rs. 13000 per household in urban areas in many states.
The argument that needs to be taken to the people is that it makes perfect economic sense to invest in a sustainable and aspirational toilet even if they have to co- finance the cost by an additional amount required to construct a sustainable and aspirational toilet, as the benefit cost ratio (estimated to be 7.7 in case of SE Asia as per one of the studies) of construction of sustainable and improved toilet is too high to ignore. With MFIs getting increasingly involved for soft loans for sanitation financing by household and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds being increasingly committed to support SBM, the time could not have been better to break this myth. In turn, to help people with getting access to their aspirational and sustainable toilet and access to sanitation financing. This indeed will ensure to plug the leakages between toilet construction and its usages and also increase the life of a toilet to live its full design year at least, if not more.
Myth # 3 – Of technological puzzles , perceptions and realities
There are a number of myths associated with sanitation technologies being implemented under SBM (Rural) and SBM (urban). How often do we hear that on-site is better than off -site sanitation solutions in the Indian context? You may also hear of the poor quality of Septic Tanks being constructed and therefore surrounding pollution. How often do we attribute governance/management/planning failures to technological failures, for example the. performance of Sewerage Networks and Sewerage Treatment Plants.
The point here is that the implementation of SBM will need all the technologies that are available and probably many more for sustainable sanitation solutions which are context specific, affordable and require minimum operation and maintenance interventions or costs. However, there are no silver bullets here because each of the technology needs to be managed. These myths related to technological puzzles, perception and scientific realities can be overcome by bringing in this knowledge and expertise within the domain of each household in a language which can be best understood by them. The best suited for the role of scientific communicators can be school and college children and therefore it is important to make this simplified technological knowledge on sanitation as part of curriculum and discussions in the schools and colleges of India.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here at those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion, standpoint or policy of the organization and networks that he works for and works with.
– Puneet Srivastava is a qualified civil engineer and environmentalist, working in the area of water, sanitation and hygiene for past 20 years with a varied range of organizations in India and abroad. In past he has worked with DFID-India, World Bank assisted UP/Uttaranchal Rural water supply and sanitation Project, Feedback Ventures Private Limited, Halcrow Consulting Limited, Oxfam GB, UNICEF, German Development Cooperation (GIZ- earlier known as GTZ) ICRC Geneva and currently working with Water Aid India in New Delhi.
This summer, while travelling to some of the worst drought affected rural areas of Odisha and Chhattisgarh, I bumped into about three broad scenarios as far as ‘toilet use’ is concerned. First, many villages – especially the remote ones majorly inhabited by indigenous communities – had no toilet at all; second, a few villagers had toilets but most remained unused; and third, where there were a few toilets, only the aged and ailing were using them. Of the approximately 20 villages I visited, I could safely say that 99 per cent of the people practiced open defecation, even though toilets were available for about 10 per cent of the population visited, and a few more were under construction.
The 2014-2016 drought period has had a phenomenal impact on use of toilets in rural areas as these villages have been afflicted with severest of water crises in their lifetime. The world is getting hotter by the day and India’s water resources are declining in a fast pace owing to the growing temperature and related impacts. 2014 was the hottest year in the history of meteorological records, that was broken by 2015 and now with 2016 all set to break that record.
Climate change is to blame for this. Just consider the decrease in water availability of Mahanadi river, India’s sixth largest and lifeline of both the states mentioned in this article and it is clear that mere possession of toilets would not mean that people would use it. The river has deficit in water yield by as huge as 10 per cent in recent decades owing to decreasing monsoon rainfall due to climate change.
In normal times too people don’t use toilets because of lack of water supply. In times of drought, when people have to travel more and spend up to 300 to 400 per cent more time in collecting water – as observed during my study in these villages – people would for sure abandon the toilets. This exactly what they relayed to me.
For toilets to be used, besides many other factors, water security is a must. Or else, we need to invent effective dry toilets, which currently seems to be a distant dream.
– Ranjan Kishor Panda is a known expert on water, sanitation, disasters and climate change in India. Awarded as the first ‘Green Hero’ by NDTV-Toyota in 2010 from the Honorable President of India for his contribution to water issues, he has more than 25 years of experience as a practitioner of sustainable water harvesting and management, researcher and writer. He has also received several other awards and has been felicitated by many organisations starting from grassroots organisations to UN houses. Currently he leads several regional and national advocacy networks on these issues. Two prominent of them are the “Water Initiatives Odisha” and “Combat Climate Change Network.” He has also worked at the international level on water management research and advocacy, has been invited to various foreign countries/institutions including universities to speak on these issues. He contributes to various media publications and is a global award winning photographer. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
In July 2016, the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation released the framework of engagement with the private sector. This framework should bring more clarity in the involvement of the private sector into mainstreaming their involvement in achieving the ambitious, imperative and achievable goal of Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM).
While we may celebrate the attention that sanitation has finally got from the ramparts of the Red Fort to all the way down, we have to accept that challenge is huge and catch the bull by the horns. And the emphasis is on ‘we’.
Already two years down the line as we race towards achieving the target of 173 districts to be declared ODF by March 2017 and the whole of India Swachh by 2019, the country is way behind target.
According to a July 2017 report, of the total 12 crore toilets to be built a mere two crore have been constructed. Only 17 of the 683 districts have turned ODF since the programme began in October 2014.
After a review of SBM by the PM in June this year, implementation of SBM (Grameen) has been divided into two phases. In the first phase, strong focus will be on 173 districts across 23 states. The objective is to turn these into ODF districts by next year. While these districts may be considered low hanging fruits, the challenge cannot be underestimated. For a challenge so huge, is it fair to expect only the government and its machinery, and a few development actors, to make this happen?
If we seriously reflect, we do realise that our support is required.
Sanitation is everybody’s business. It’s time for everyone to get engaged in whatever they can do best. Already several celebrities have committed their time on national campaigns. The SBM logo can be found across all ministries and sectors. The push for sanitation and the elimination of open defection has never been stronger.
It is now time to roll up the sleeves and get down to working on the ground: Build toilets and convince people to use these, making ‘going out’ history.
So what is it that the industry can do? A lot as it happens. In several forums the private sector expresses helplessness as to not knowing what they can do. So, while the intention is there the ‘how’ is missing.
This is where partnerships come into play. When people and institutions with a common vision and objectives work together, bringing their unique skills and strengths, the unthinkable can happen. Open defecation CAN become history.
So what can the industry do?
Be a trailblazer: Commit and contribute to the SBM as it drills down to getting districts open defecation free. This means offering financial and other support for implementation.
Visit the DC and commit: The District Collector/ CEO has the mandate to make the district ODF. Visit the Collectorate offices and offer unstinted support. Understand the status and the challenges.
Identify and support a development partner at district level: There are several development agencies who have experience on working with the government officials and communities around sanitation. But they need your support.
More often than not, this will mean delving into your pockets and providing financial support so that the partner can focus on doing what’s required for eliminating open defection. Together, and with the Collector, make a plan, identify the gaps and then fund the gap.
Engage your staff and workers: This will help motivate and develop a sense of ownership over the company’s efforts in sanitation. Get the staff to visit villages wherever and whenever possible. Make them sanitation ambassadors.
Monitor progress and evaluate efforts: This will help keep the progress on track and also address bottlenecks.
Raise funds: Develop and manage a crowd funding campaign and take responsibility for the fund use.
Engage others: Motivate others in your circle to adopt a district and do what you have done.
Document, share and celebrate your efforts: Sharing knowledge and experience encourages and informs others. One such effort has been the collaborative effort between FICCI and IPE Global a global social development consultancy company to document the sanitation efforts of the private sector under CSR.
Gandhiji said, “Sanitation is more important than political Independence.” The industry had a major role to play during the struggle for freedom and post-independence overall development. This sector must again rise to the occasion and help India get rid of open defecation, once and for all. Imagine the satisfaction of directly contributing towards a clean India, of preventing violence, saving lives and helping children reach their full physical and mental abilities.
Come forward and join the journey.
– Indira Khurana, PhD, Lead – WASH, IPE Global (An international development consulting group)
India has a serious sanitation challenge; around 60 per cent of the worlds open defecation takes place in India. Even today, only around 28,000 gram panchayats out of 2.5 lakh in India have achieved the Nirmal Gram (open defecation free village) status. Poor sanitation causes health hazards including diarrhoea, particularly in children under 5 years of age, malnutrition and deficiencies in physical development and cognitive ability.
We have to work with children and communities to realise their right to clean and adequate qualities of drinking water, sanitation and hygiene since they have direct bearing on the right to life and dignity. Lack of these entitlements and services in the communities put children at risk of disease and mortality. When access to water is difficult or schools are without toilets, many children (especially girls) face increased burdens on their time and risks to their learning and safety. Lack of Operation and Maintenance (O&M) funds and dedicated workers for toilet block maintenance results in slip back. Poor and marginalised families who are living with income poverty find it challenging to pay for these services hence the emphasis is on invoking the responsibility of the government for its provision.
We have to address the issues of poor sanitation, which seep into every aspect of life – health, nutrition, development, economy, dignity and empowerment. It perpetuates an intergenerational cycle of poverty and deprivation. To meet the country’s sanitation and hygiene challenge there is an urgent need to focus on triggering the demand for improved sanitation facilities, ensuring their quality, use and maintenance. This is achieved by creating a culture of “social sanctions” that challenges the acceptance of open defecation once and for all. Making this happen requires substantial resource and time investment to inculcate a lasting change in behaviour and adoption of key hygiene practices at the community and household level.
– R K Srinivasan, WASH Technical Advisor, Plan India. Under the guidance of the Director, Strategy, New Delhi Office, responsible for facilitating and influencing the State Government’s evidence based policy, planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, and documentation for WASH sector plans and projects. Supporting state and District level, Plan Staff and Plan Partner staff in community based WASH intervention. Leadership and sector specific guidance from the Key Resource Centre (KRC), created by the Ministry of Drinking Water supply and Sanitation, New Delhi.
What is Swachh Bharat? How’s it going in the field truly? Is the government really delivering on this mission? We are bombarded with such questions every day whenever we are introduced as people working sanitation. The problem with that question is that it somehow places the whole issue external to the person asking the question – they are honest seekers of information, but at the same time that they are asking these questions disturbs me.
Here is why these questions make me somewhat unhappy. I am, what is somewhat jestingly called, a development professional…which makes people think of me as either the NGO-jhola (sling bag) type, or the white collar professional sitting in air-conditioned offices writing about development issues, strategies, or “romanticizing” poverty. Admit it – these are the two categories you have already put me in as you are reading this! I have to admit that I am somewhere in between. What is most compelling about my work is that it allows me to collect stories and experiences that heavily influence the work I do – to be an impatient optimist to bring change for the poorest and to spread equity with the underlying belief that all lives have equal value. … Hold on, I am getting to my point about why those questions disturb me. There are many stories I could tell to drive the point home, but let me start with a few…The first story is about one of my journeys when I was leading a trip to see programs “in the field”. As part of my preparatory work I had to spend the night in a village with some colleagues. We slept under the stars (the romance part) on charpoys (jute strung cots). We had been warned to stay close and not wander off at night, since the area was known to have snakes, scorpions and other wild creatures we wouldn’t necessarily want to encounter on our own – more because a bad encounter at night would also disturb my colleagues’ much needed sleep. But come 4:30 am, nature called, and I had to find a safe place to answer it – in pitch dark, scared of venomous creatures waiting to pounce- , and brave the bushes I could find – looking carefully over my shoulder that I wasn’t a tourist site for fellow villagers, colleagues. The story ended happily for me. I managed to find relief and came back quietly and laid down. Ah! the relief that the episode ended and that soon we would be on our way….but wait what about all the other people that shared my starry night? Where do they go in the morning, afternoon and night – every day, every night? How do they deal with this? And the answer is that they do what I did every day of their lives, looking / walking carefully for any creatures – animal, insect or man that might pounce on them and attack, ridicule and humiliate them while they answer the call of nature at not the most convenient times. So they plan what they eat, how much they eat and drink, regardless of what they should and how much they need to eat and drink to stay healthy. And they are attacked and humiliated….even if it’s a soft snigger as they walk past. So for them, Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) is late in coming…they have needed it for so long and they need it now. SBM is not a regular government delivery program ; it is not something we can be skeptical about; it is not also a research program; or a political agenda – it is life and death for them – more often than we would like to imagine.
The next story is about a group of women in Trichy – who work as sanitation motivators. They live in a slum, and didn’t have money /space to construct individual toilets. So, after years of scrambling around in the dark, seeking private places in an ever-crowded space to answer their biological need to urinate and defecate, and walking through the waste that others left outside their homes in the open spaces, they petitioned and got a community toilet built in the area. They now spend hours keeping it clean, being vigilant to keep their slum from becoming a place for people to use as a big open toilet, and looking after general repairs. It is now a part of their everyday life to worry about the community toilet – no broken windows, taps, doors….and often end up paying their own money to keep it going…till they are reimbursed from city budgets…..For them SBM is a key need to ensure that their toilets and that of so many of their fellow city dwellers are kept clean, usable and well maintained. It’s now their lifeline – literally…or else where will they go? Is SBM working for them?
The question really is – what have all of us l done to ensure that our cities allow Lakshmi and her brothers, sisters, children, parents in the slum to go freely to a safe, clean toilet when they want, eat what they want and spend time learning, earning and living healthy lives that we take for granted as the rhythm of our life? Can we help my village hosts imagine a world where safe sanitation is a matter of routine for everyone, everywhere?! Something they can take for granted the same way we do! Remember the desperation you feel when you have to wait in queue “to go” at the airport, during a large meeting – now imagine that desperation everyday….
Now let us imagine another reality – that all of us have access to a clean toilet, that the waste is safely collected and disposed and not dumped so that children diving into a natural body of water, are actually jumping into clean waters and NOT into all of our waste? That the water we drink is not tainted with our waste, and that fellow Indians who can’t access fancy RO filters, still get clean water….everyone, everywhere needs this basic facility – not just us….everyone!!
Because honestly, that is what SBM is! It’s not a government program. It’s not a political agenda. For Lakshmi, for my village colleagues, for the citizens in the country living in slums, it is the difference between life and death! Can we honestly sit back and watch this from the sidelines, externalize the issues and ask such inane questions as “Is SBM working?”. The question we should be asking is “How can we make this work? What can I do to ensure it works?” Shouldn’t we all be in the trenches – before we have no sidelines left to watch from? Join SBM –….be a part of the Swachh Bharat Mission. How? you ask? Be brave and stop someone from littering…organize community meetings and tell everyone who needs to know about the Mission. Read what the poor are entitled to and spread the word on their rights – to anyone you meet who you think would benefit from knowing about this. Meet your local politician and find out what she is doing to contribute to the mission and how you can help. Because no one person can create a Swachh Bharat – it has to become Mera Bharat Swacch – safe sanitation and a Clean India for me!!!
– Madhu Krishna is Senior Program Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Leave No One Behind is a call to listen and learn by putting people in the centre, asking them what they need and valuing the one in everyone. It is based on the belief that human beings come in different shapes and sizes and a single solution cannot meet their diverse needs. WASH services are mostly designed to meet the needs of the mainstream, dominant community. But what happens to those that are traditionally left behind … the last mile … adolescents, pregnant women, the elderly, people with disabilities, migrant workers, rag pickers, transgender people? How do they take care of their daily sanitation and hygiene needs? What are their challenges and aspirations? Do they have insights and suggestions to improve sanitation services?
The Kathmandu Declaration from the fifth South Asian inter-ministerial conference on sanitation (SACOSAN V) recognized the importance of “addressing diversity in service provision for infants, children, youth, adolescent girls, women, people with disabilities, chronically ill and elderly in rural area and people affected by poverty…” and committed to significant direct participation of these groups in SACOSAN VI, Dhaka and systematically thereafter. (Commitment X)
As part of the preparation for SACOSAN VI in Dhaka, the Freshwater Action Network South Asia (FANSA) and Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) organized a consultative process with marginalized groups in South Asia to listen to their sanitation and hygiene needs, challenges, hopes and aspirations, as well as their suggestions for improvement. Over 2700 adolescents, women, elderly people, persons with disabilities, sanitation workers, rag pickers and transgender people participated in 55 consultations organized with the support of 70 local partners across Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Read the Leave No One Behind report for the key findings and watch the film to hear interviews with participants.
Across these 8 countries, this was the first time many of these groups were being consulted on their sanitation and hygiene needs, challenges and aspirations.
Here is what some of them said …
“My daughter does not go to school when she is menstruating because she is embarrassed and feels that the male teachers may not understand her. There is no counseling for girls in school to explain how to manage menstruation hygienically. Girls tend to change their sanitary materials infrequently because they are not aware of the risks and due to economic reasons. Some of them use the same cloth for one and a half days!” – Adiba Qureshi, Afghanistan
“Once I fell on my back while going to the toilet behind my house and dislocated my back bone. I have had pain ever since. Now, I tie a cloth around me and pass urine standing like a man does. What else can I do?”- 80-year old Yellemma ,Warangal, Telengana, India.
“I need a bathroom which has support I can hold on to, otherwise I will lose my balance. A one-inch wall will easily collapse if I fall on it. That is why I want a bathroom to suit my need.” – Suman, a wheel chair user, Ranchi, Jharkhand, India
“As part of our work we sweep, pick up garbage, clean drains and pick up dead animals. The dead animals smell real bad. We don’t get a mask, gloves or shoes to cover ourselves. If people can’t bear the dirty smell, imagine what we have to bear while picking up a dead dog.” – Shankar Mukhi, Sanitation worker, Saraikela, Jharkhand, India
“We do not know which washroom to go to – ladies’ or gents’? The moment we visit the ladies’ toilets, women are either scared or make fun of us. When we go to the men’s toilet, we are assaulted. I am now scared and avoid using public toilets.” – Jaya, Transwoman, Bangladesh
So, is it just a question of more taps and toilets? Would infrastructure alone help to change mindsets and eradicate stigma and discrimination that prevent transgender people, like Jaya, from using public toilets or adolescent girls like Adiba’s daughter from going to school when she has her periods?
In January 2016, twelve community representatives who had been a part of the consultative process participated in a plenary session at SACOSAN VI, Dhaka. They eloquently shared the sanitation and hygiene challenges and aspirations of their constituencies with the audience of Ministers and key decision makers of participating governments, practitioners, academics, civil society and private sector agencies. The Dhaka Declaration is a testimony to the influence this session had on policy makers.
The Leave No One Behind consultation process is an important, first step towards addressing equity and inclusion in sanitation and hygiene. However, we need to continue and deepen this process by creating more platforms for constructive dialogue, so that duty bearers can listen to the needs and aspirations of marginalized groups and include them in the design, delivery and management of sanitation services.
For, unless we put the last mile first and listen, they will continue to be left behind.
– Kamini Prakash is Technical Officer – Equality and Non-Discrimination with WSSCC’s newly set up India team
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.