Dadar resident Peter Rodrigues (31), who often spends his evenings building sand castles with his children on Dadar Chowpatty, is forced to leave the beach by 6 pm. The reason? The sight of a long line of men standing against the beach wall, relieving themselves in the open.
It’s not that beachgoers have no bathroom to go to. About 600 metres away, the Shivaji Park promenade houses a well-maintained Sulabh Shauchalaya.
“But that is precisely the problem. For those who urgently want to relieve themselves, getting off the beach and walking 10 minutes to reach the area’s only toilet is difficult,” said Rodrigues.
The severe lack of public toilets in a city bursting at the seams is an old and well-voiced complaint. The problem intensifies on the beaches — the defining feature of our coastal city — which thousands visit every day to exercise, spend time with their families, sell their wares or just catch a breath of sea air.
Of the 1,755 pay-and-use public toilets for Mumbai’s 18 million residents, only five are on the city’s main beaches: two on the 6.5-km Juhu Beach, one on Versova Beach, one on Girgaum Chowpatty and one at Shivaji Park.
In a survey conducted by Hindustan Times and Ipsos Indica Research, and in discussions with citizens and citizen groups, many held the civic body responsible for the stench and unhygienic conditions brought on by the ubiquitous practice of open defecation on beaches.
But constructing public toilets is no cakewalk for the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), which is just one of the seven land-holding authorities in Mumbai — the others being the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority, Mumbai Port Trust, Highway Authority, Airport Authority of India, state and central governments.
In the case of beaches, the land is not only owned by the state government, but is also governed by the Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ) laws.
“Before we can grant a no-objection certificate for a toilet, we have to get permission from both these authorities,” said B.P. Patil, chief engineer at the BMC’s Solid Waste Management Department.
This makes Mumbai’s beaches off-limits for toilets, since the CRZ rules of 1991 do not permit any permanent construction within 500 metres of the coastline. The five toilets currently on our beaches were constructed at least 15 years ago, before these regulations were enforced.
For the BMC, the problem is not too severe. “There are enough toilets for the floating population on beaches. During festivals and gatherings, we always provide mobile toilets,” said Patil.
However, for citizens, the shortage is acute. The obvious solution is to build toilets across the roads at a convenient distance from the coast. But this comes with its own problems, often due to citizens acting against their own interests.
“Nobody wants a toilet in their backyard. People would rather suffer from the hazards of open defecation than have a toilet constructed near their house,” said Anil Kumar, honorary chairman, Maharashtra for Sulabh International, which maintains a string of pay-and-use toilets in Mumbai.
Take the case of the toilet that was to be built near Wilson College, for beachgoers at Girgaum Chowpatty. “We had given the green signal, but the hurdles came from quarters who believed that the toilet would ruin the heritage status of the college building,” said a BMC official who requested anonymity.
Zahida Banatwalla (55), a member of the Juhu Citizens Welfare Ground and secretary of the Nagrik Satta Ward 63, blames a general lack of civic sense for the disrepute earned by public toilets. “When we had a public toilet outside our society a few years ago, the toilet attendants openly sold water to rickshaws to wash their vehicles and sometimes even taken a bath in the open.”
Banatwalla said public toilets are the need of the hour. Residents near beaches need to be convinced that the toilets will be kept clean and stench-free.
According to Anand Jagtap, officer on special duty at the BMC, an attitudinal change is required. “People assume that a toilet equals dirtiness. But they need to be educated that the absence of toilets is worse,” he said.