Last week, the South Delhi Municipal Corporation, whose job it is to build and maintain public toilets, asked hotels and restaurants within its jurisdiction to open their restrooms to anyone needing to use them. From April 1, restrooms in these private establishments in south Delhi can be used by city residents for a charge of up to Rs 5. Restaurant and hotel owners are worried that opening their washrooms to the public will overstretch the limited facilities (read lengthen the queues outside washrooms) and mess up their premises.
The SDMC’s justification is that it will open up 4,000 toilets for public use and such high number of facilities cannot be delivered otherwise. So, what is essentially the responsibility of the civic agency is now being parcelled out to private businesses.
Delhi is not the first to try this public-private partnership model. Several councils in Britain have adopted the community toilet scheme under which shops, department stores, restaurants, pubs and other businesses open their toilets for public use. They have to display a sticker to show that they are a part of the initiative. They are also paid an annual fee. However, in the last few years, many establishments have pulled out because they have not been paid by the councils.
As city planners had warned early on, such schemes were bound to fail if the councils closed their own public toilets and expected private participants to fill in. At least 1,782 government-run public conveniences, including some that existed for 150 years, have been shut down across the UK in the last decade due to squeezed budgets, a BBC investigation found last year.
It is not surprising that toilet anxiety is becoming a mental health issue in the UK. “Toilet phobia” has been defined by Anxiety UK, a support group, as a combination of worries about being unable to use facilities that are clean, worrying about leaving the house unless there is a “safe” toilet that can be used and specific mental conditions such as Parcopresis and Paruresis or the fear of defecating or urinating in public places.
No prizes for guessing that most women and senior citizens in Delhi suffer from same fears. The civic bodies run 1,134 public toilets and 2,424 urinals. Only 218 of these are available to women. Anyway, their poor hygiene and inaccessibility ensure that they are seldom used. As a result, women are forced to exercise bladder control. This may not do them good in the long run. Doctors say holding urine in can cause infections and even damage kidneys. Providing toilets, therefore, is not just a question of environmental improvement but that of human dignity and public health.
The AAP govt in Delhi has promised 200,000 toilets in its tenure. Building restrooms are also the main thrust of PM Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat initiative and funds are being disbursed easily. In the run-up to the civic polls scheduled on April 22, the three municipalities have already inaugurated a few hundred such restrooms.
But building toilets has always been the easy part. Getting running water, power and maintaining cleanliness in the existing ones is the challenge. In most facilities, fittings and seats are stolen or broken. At least 40% of Delhi’s informal settlements that need toilets do not have sewerage connections.
Earlier, experiments with waterless urinals and cafe-cum-restrooms flopped because of mindless planning and poor implementation. For instance, the waterless urinals did not work because its odour traps became useless in Delhi’s high temperatures, leaving the toilets in a stinking mess.
The users must also take part of the blame. Public toilets stink because they are used badly. Indians are not unclean people. But our cleanliness is usually restricted to our personal space. Outside, we have long made peace with practices we wouldn’t allow at home. Most people don’t bother about cleanliness if someone else is supposed to clean up after them. The government institutions are a reflection of its people. Just like citizens leave it to the janitors to clean up the mess, the civic agencies want the private sector to take up its job. So much for public convenience.