“I could only go to relieve myself twice a day – once in the morning at 3 am, before the sun rose, and once after sunset. Through the day I had to restrain myself,” remembers Imarti, a resident of Hirmathla village in Haryana’s Mewat district. Till 2011 the village had no toilets. When the NGO Sulabh International initiated a move to build toilets in the village, Imarti, worked as a construction labourer to pay off her share. “It was a relief,” remembers Husaini, whose husband is the sarpanch of the village. “Earlier we would be exposed to catcalls from passers-by when we went to relieve ourselves even in the dark. Some would throw stones at us. During monsoons, the area would be flooded and there would be the fear of snake and scorpion bites,” she recalls. While Hirmathla got toilet coverage in 2011, neighbouring villages in Mewat still don’t have the facility.
According to Census 2011, 53.1% of households in India did not have toilets. The figure is only 69.3% for rural India. Reacting to the double rape-cum-murder case in Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun recently, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued a statement indicating that more toilets will put a curb on rapes in the country. “The NHRC has been consistently emphasising upon provisions of wet latrines which in a way emphasises the need for having proper toilets for every household,” the Commission said.
Read: Badaun girls' tragic story points to risks women face in rural India
Reacting to the statement, National Commission for Women (NCW) member Laldingliani Sailo says, “I am not sure whether the number of rapes can be directly correlated to the lack of toilets, but it is true that it makes a woman vulnerable. The places where these women go to relieve themselves is often at a distance from their houses. That apart, there are many health hazards of defecating in the open and it is also against basic human dignity. We have taken up the issue of women’s lack of access to toilets before and we will continue to do so.”
Earlier this month, a woman in a village near Patna won a four-year-long battle against her husband and in-laws to have a toilet built at home. Parvati Devi had walked out of her in-laws house in 2012 when her demands to have a toilet in the house were not met. “Parvati’s is not an isolated case. Even in the conservative social set up of remote villages in Bihar, women are now voicing their demand for toilets and leaving their marital home if their demands are not being met,” says Bindeshwar Pathak, founder, Sulabh International. Pathak recalls how his own ancestral house in Bihar did not have a toilet for a long time. “It was a big house and even had a well in the courtyard so that one didn’t have to go out to fetch water, but there was no toilet. Family members had to step out to relieve themselves in the open,” says Pathak, adding, “the lack of security for women when they step out to relieve themselves and the need to restore human rights and dignity were the key reasons behind the launch of Sulabh.”
Access to toilets, however, is a basic human need, that many would not want to relate to the threat of sexual violence against women. “It is disturbing that the simplest of human needs, to relieve oneself, is often so difficult for women to satisfy,” says Paromita Vohra, whose film Q2P, looks at the lack of public toilets for women, as a means to study their position in the public space. “The film evolved from the idea of how everyone holds up urban living as an ideal. But who are the cities built for? For the men, the whole city is their urinal. They treat the public domain as their private space,” says Vohra. Maintenance of public toilets is a problem. “The toilets are not clean, often there is no water. How can one use them?” she questions. According to the filmmaker, there are more public toilets for women in Mumbai, but the toilets in New Delhi are better maintained, she says. “According to the law, for women, one needs to build two-thirds the number of toilets there are for men. But the problem of toilets cannot be solved numerically. Women need more time in the toilet than men. One has to keep their needs in mind,” says Vohra.
Read: Centre slams UP for sitting on Rs. 293 crore meant for building toilets
A 2010 United Nations (UN) report found more people in India have access to a cell phone than to a toilet and improved sanitation. Research in India showed that roughly 366 million people (31% of the population) had access to improved sanitation in 2008. Data, meanwhile, showed 545 million cell phones were connected to service in India. After the publishing of the UN report and the Census 2011 (which revealed a similar situation), the Indian government, and then minister for rural development, Jairam Ramesh, had raised the ‘No toilet, no bride’ slogan, urging parents not to give their daughters in marriage to a family that did not have an indoor lavatory.
According to UN estimates, India is home to 594 million people defecating in the open. This is major cause of microbial contamination of water, that causes diarrhoea. According to the UNICEF, in 2007, 386,600 children died of diarrhoea in India, the highest in the world. A recent World Bank study by Dean Spears also relates open defecation to stunting in children
There are also health risks to women. “Worm infestation is a major health hazard for those defecating in the open. Women who use public toilets are also more prone to urinary tract infections. The same is also true for those who relieve themselves in the open and thus don’t manage to urinate as frequently as required,” says Suneeta Mittal, a gynaecologist.
The government of India had started the Central Rural Sanitation Programme in 1986. In 1999 it was renamed the Total Sanitation campaign and later evolved into the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan. “Last year we constructed 50 lakh toilets in rural India. Still an estimated 10 crore houses in the rural areas do not have toilets,” says a source in the ministry of drinking water and sanitation.
The department had a budget of Rs. 4260 crore from the centre and another Rs. 1000 cr from the states for the current year. “But the challenge is not simply to build a toilet. Only 18% of rural India has piped water supply at home. For the others, using and maintaining a toilet means fetching extra water, which many are reluctant to do. Often the toilet is used as a storage space, because it is the only concrete structure that the households have. Less than one% of the villages have sewer lines. So sanitation is a challenge. The answer is a standalone toilet where the waste gets decomposed but not many are aware of this,” says the source. The problem of sanitation is also true of towns. “Only 160 towns of the 7935 in India have sewer lines,” says Bindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh.
But the biggest challenge, especially in villages is to make people aware that the toilet is a necessity. “Earlier my husband would say they are more comfortable relieving themselves in the open,” recalls Imarti. According to ancient Indian culture, one should defecate far from the habitation. The concept of having a toilet at home is thus not acceptable for many. “And when money is a problem a toilet is far down on the list of priorities.” Under the NBA, the government provides Rs. 10000 to each rural household to build a toilet. “We are currently using 85% of our funds for building toilets and the rest for educating people.” The scheme has received success in some states. “Sikkim has got 100% toilet coverage. But states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, continue to pose a problem,” says the ministry of drinking water and sanitation employee.
‘Men hide and watch us as we relieve ourselves’
Close to Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station, along the rail tracks right in the heart of New Delhi is a slum inhabited mostly by the migrant population from southern Indian states. Many of the approximately 600 tenements here have television and refrigerators. Many also have coolers to ward off the worst of the summer heat. But none of the houses have a toilet. There is not even a single community toilet in the area. Men, women and children all have to find secluded spots along the railway tracks to go relieve themselves. “Of course it is a problem. Sometimes men, not those from our community,but others, hide and watch us. If our men catch them, they beat them up. But it is unsafe going so far from home at night,” says Sushila, who works as a cook. She has been a resident of the area for 28 years. Adds Kamala, one of her neighbours, “It is also unsafe for the children to relieve themselves on the tracks. Trains keep coming. The adults are not always able to accompany them.” Space is at a premium here and the reason why houses don’t have toilets. “Just look at how small the rooms are. Where is the space to build a toilet,” questions one resident.
Adds Sushila, “Before the elections whenever a politician visits the slum we request them to build a toilet here. They all say they will address the problem if voted to power. But nothing has changed in all these years.” Sulabh has submitted a proposal to the MCD to build a community toilet in the slum. “They have to approve the proposal and allocate land for the project. They are yet to do it.” Meanwhile, the men, women and children here, continue to start their day by making their way to the railway tracks to relieve themselves, plastic bottles of water in hand.
‘Whatever time you go, there is always a queue’
The two toilet blocks in the Rafique Nagar slum in central Mumbai are situated right outside the massive open-air dumping ground at Deonar, but they are as busy as any railway station in the city.
That’s because they are the only two toilet blocks in the area — 28 ‘seats’ for a slum of 5,000 households (approximately 25,000 people).
Among those who queue here every day to defecate are homemaker Naseem Banno, 42, her carpenter husband, her 22-year-old son and her mother. “Whatever time you go to these toilets, there is a queue of at least 10 people,” says Banno.
Her family pays Rs. 50 a month for ‘membership’ because she lives in one of the slum homes to which the toilet was allocated when it was built by the government. Many of her neighbours are not so lucky and must pay Rs. 3 every time they visit.
The queue is the lesser of Banno’s problems. Every time she visits, she must also brave the groups of men who sit outside and hurl curses, whistles or catcalls after the women.
“It’s a big problem here,” she says. “Often, the men are drunk or drinking. They say very vulgar things. Because of them, women in the slum can never go to the toilet alone. Even if it’s the middle of the night, we have to wake up male members of the family to come with us.”
Still, Banno considers herself lucky. In addition to her membership, she has access to a toilet with running water and electricity. Sharda Gupta, 23, a homemaker living in the nearby Indira Nagar slum, uses a toilet that has neither.
“It gets pitch dark inside after 6 pm so I try to avoid using the toilet at night,” she says.
Her slum has 30 ‘seats’ for 1,400 households (approximately 7,000 people). They are always filthy, and Gupta has an eight-month-old daughter.
“It is extremely difficult to carry my child and a bucket of water and manage there in the dark room,” she says. “I sometimes wish my husband [a peon] and I could go back to our village in Uttar Pradesh. We have a toilet inside the house there.”
This is one reason residents here build a small mori or washing area in their matchbox-sized houses. The mori is always built in the kitchen and typically does not have walls, because it is meant for the washing of utensils.
In moris in Mumbai’s slums, people also bathe — and urinate.
“I know it is unhygienic,” says Banno. “But what can we do. We women cannot go to the toilets by ourselves because there are always men waiting outside to harass us and leer at us. How many times a day can we keep gathering in groups to urinate?”
(Report by Riddhi Doshi)