Actor Salman Khan was apparently disgusted at the sight of some people answering the nature’s call at Bandra Bandstand, decided to marshal his awesome power to do something about it, approached the venerable Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) with an offer to install mobile toilets, and the next thing you know, the BMC made him the face of its campaign against open defecation. Inspired by Khan, a private company pledged to donate 30 mobile toilets. Many more donations may come the BMC’s way.
Khan, in his 30-year-long career under the arc lights, has been the face of numerous campaigns for a wide range of products and services. His NGO is involved with many noble deeds, we are constantly reminded by his paid and unpaid image consultants, but this campaign against open defecation may be a bit different for the star. After all, Bandra Bandstand is not the only spot where open defecation or urination happens nor is it emblematic of the urgent problem across Mumbai.
If Khan engages with the issue, he will realise that he would have to donate thousands of toilets or, better still, persuade the BMC to construct them. It will take more than star power for the BMC to end open defecation and urination across Mumbai. It will need more than patrols by BMC’s Clean-Up Marshals to stop people from using the open and direct them towards public toilets. It will take more than fines of Rs 200 per offence that the BMC plans to levy after December 15 and public shaming to get people to use toilets.
The issue is simple: Mumbaiites use the open because there aren’t enough toilets everywhere for everyone. Where toilets exist, they are often dirty, lack water and light, and cost the user. The BMC needs to put thousands more public toilets in place, in every ward and junction but especially in slum areas and clusters of homeless residents, ensure that these are connected to the civic water supply and plumbing systems, and consider making them free to use before it has Khan urging people to stop open defecation.
Why does Mumbai not have enough public toilets especially when it houses nearly half of its 12.4 million (unofficial estimates put it at 18 million) population in informal settings? Mostly because the BMC did not make sanitation services to all citizens a priority. The rich are spoilt for choice within their lavish homes, the middle classes make do with tiny cubicles as toilets, commuters and informal sector workers plan their toilet trips.
Public toilets are needed across the city but nowhere as desperately as in slums. An independent think-tank told us last year that nearly 20% of slums, which roughly works out as 1.25 million Mumbaiites, have no access to toilets; the BMC’s own surveys revealed that there were only about 80,000 toilet seats in slums catering to only 37% of the city’s slum population; in M ward which is replete with slums, there is only one toilet for every 200 persons.
In this stinking saga, women have it worse than men – only about one-third of the approximately 11,000 pay-to-use toilets are for women, according to the Right to Pee campaign launched five years ago as a coalition of more than 30 NGOs. Using the public toilet, where one exists, becomes an issue of safety and security for women.
The BMC commissioner Ajoy Mehta should lend a serious ear to the Right to Pee activists who worked with civic ward officers across Mumbai to identify locations where public toilets were needed, and attempted to work around the obstacle of inadequate space to put them up. This was not some adversarial NGO with an agenda to show up the BMC’s lacunae. The lack of adequate sanitation costs a city in many ways including its economic and health parameters.
Most of all, ending open defecation and urination is a part of what ought to be a comprehensive sanitation policy. This needs ideas, investment and a commitment from the BMC, not star power and a few mobile toilets.