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The Mumbai project: The public toilet

Mumbai has one dirty public toilet for every 10,769 people. Ads on toilet walls will fetch money and change things, but the proposal is yet to get the go-ahead. A report by Snehal Rebello.Talk to us...Check out the special on The Mumbai Project

india Updated: Dec 15, 2007 17:27 IST
Snehal Rebello

"The fastest way to build public toilets is to get celebrities and community leaders to speak up, lend their image or give quotable quotes for the campaign. This strategy can work very well in Mumbai because it is the heart of Bollywood. In India, Mumbai can lead the movement to upgrade toilets" - Jack Sim, Founder and Director of World Toilet Organisation.
(Check out the special on The Mumbai Project)

Deaf to nature's call

Kapish Raichur hates his job: delivering mail to the plush offices of Mumbai's newest business district: the Bandra-Kurla Complex. The 25-year-old courier runner's nightmare is not his full mailbag but the occasional full bladder.

Mumbai's office district of the future - brick, glass and glazed tiles spread over an area of approximately 170 cricket grounds and home to the National Stock Exchange, multinational banks, a diamond bourse and big league international schools - does not have a single public toilet. Raichur often relieves himself in a corner of a sidewalk. "There is no choice," he said. "I am not comfortable accessing the BKC office toilets neither can I walk up to Bandra station with a full bladder. It's not like I love using the corners, but there is no toilet to go to."

Anyone who does not have entry to the commercial district's plush buildings, whether it is a taxi driver or a construction worker, does the same. While the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, the guardian of Bandra-Kurla Complex, has decided to build one finally by end of 2008, many prime and crowded city spots - another example is the popular Priyadarshini Park in south Mumbai - lack basic sanitation. And so a booming Mumbai must endure its age-old dubious defining feature: it's great stink.

In a city where an average person spends more time outside home, travelling long distances to reach the workplace, there are only 1,300 pay-and-use toilets for 14 million people: one public toilet for 10,769 desperate users. Compare this with Singapore's 60,000 public toilets for its 4.5 million people: one for 75 people. Shanghai has a public toilet every 1,000 feet.

The civic body has no budget or targets to building pay-and-use toilets. For the last one-year, permissions have been granted for just 10 additional toilet blocks. "We get a lot of applications for toilet construction. We are considering 60 proposals. But permission depends on movement of traffic and people in an area," said P.S. Joshi, executive engineer, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).

But things could improve if the idea of inviting advertisements on the outer walls of a toilet block gets cleared by the Mumbai civic body's Improvement Committee. Sulabh International, a group that builds and maintains public lavatories, has submitted a proposal for constructing 100 toilets with advertisements.

"The ad revenue will be shared equally. If the proposal gets a nod, the advertisement model will be replicated with any non-government organisation that wants to build a toilet," said RA Rajeev, additional municipal commissioner, who hopes the ad money will help maintain toilets better.

"Additional earnings are essential. But the entry fee will not increase." And although Mumbai aspires to be world class, the government does not even have a blueprint on toilets. "It has master plans for beautification, Mithi river cleaning, building roads and flyovers, but nothing on public toilets. Lavatories are way down on any government agency's priority list," said MR Shah, former chief engineer with the BMC. What probably works against Mumbai is the presence of seven major land owners - the BMC, Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), Highway Authority, Airport Authority, Mumbai Port Trust, central government and state government - making it difficult to evolve an integrated approach.

"Public toilets end up being no one's baby," said a civic official, requesting anonymity. Moreover, in a city of booming real estate, builder and trader lobbies view a pay-and-use toilet as an eyesore. "No one wants a public toilet outside a residential area or a commercial establishment. There are so many instances where political pressure was used to ensure that no toilet is built," said Shah.

How is a pay-and-use toilet sanctioned? The civic body has to simply give a no-objection certificate to the non-government organisation (NGO) or trust that puts forth a proposal to construct it. About 50 private agencies run pay-and-use toilets in the city. But most of these trustees have horror tales to tell. (See: Reality check from the trustees) Besides, the MMRDA, which has a key role to play in changing the face of the city, has knocked off public toilets to make way for wider roads over the last two to three years.

"Progress is needed," conceded Palgi Katpara, chairman of the Sarv Lokseva Mandal, which runs three public toilets in the suburbs. "But MMRDA doesn't provide alternative locations to rebuild the demolished toilets." There is considerable debate over design too. "Why do we always have to think big? If there is no space, one- or two-seater toilets the size of a paan shop can be built," said former BMC chief engineer Shah. Rajan Lakule, principal of Sir JJ School of Architecture, believes the city should keep it simple. "The toilet is a function box," he said. "The only accessories should be cleanliness and neatness." Criticising the city's toilet as works of "clumsy and cheap workmanship", Lakule said: "The tile joints are important since they get dirty first, not the surface as much. Good fixtures along with a good disposal system for sanitary waste are very important, apart from a ventilator or a room freshener."

He said toilets in Malaysia are made of fibre, look good and last long. He advocates sturdier doors for public toilets. "Rain water storage can provide for the extra water requirement. For new toilets, the technology for waste water recycle and reuse should be incorporated," said Vaibhavi Kale-Mahakalkar, deputy planner, MMRDA. "Instead of going overboard with foreign concepts, we need original thinking to address local situations."

Stumbling blocks

Reality check from the trustees:

Setting up a pay-and-use toilet is not easy, say toilet owners. While the construction could take as little as three months, it could take three years to issue the work order.

"Mumbai can never become Shanghai simply because there is so much political interference," said a toilet trustee, requesting anonymity.

This sentiment is echoed by owners of the 50 trusts and non-government organisations involved in the construction of public toilets in the city. Politicisation starts from the time the civic body gives a go-ahead for toilet construction, following which an advertisement is put up on the proposed site asking for objections from the community.

"Most of the time, we have to approach the local corporator to get things moving. But if a corporator from one party gets to know that the trustee has approached a corporator from another party, the former will raise an objection and the toilet can then never come up," said a trustee.

Where corporations fear to tread:

Large companies have funded only about 90 toilets in the city. The first pay-and-use toilet was sponsored by HDFC Bank in 1988 at Dadar TT. But there have not been too many since.

"Corporate sponsors can be encouraged only if the civic administration is interested. They need to be given special treatment, else they can put their funds on other activities," said MR Shah, former chief engineer with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.

Shah cited the example of another corporate house that in 2003 wanted to fund public toilets. "They were willing to build any number of toilets. I personally wrote about 12 letters to the BMC, but never got a response," he said.

Director of Singapore-based World Toilet Organisation Jack Sim said corporate-sponsored toilets were "very good".

"More the competition, more innovation and better service will prevail. However, the investor must have a social investment approach, that is revenue for sustainability but not for pure profit," said Sim.

Said a civic official: "Corporate houses do not want to be involved in time-taking procedures. They give funds and let an NGO do the rest." Bangalore has done it Sudha Murthy, wife of Infosys founder NR Narayan Murthy donated Rs 8 crore to the Bangalore civic body, with which 100 pay-and-use toilets were built in the city. The toilets are managed by private groups.

Health hazards

Dr Hemant Thacker, consulting physician for Jaslok Hospital and Breach Candy Hospital

Possibility of skin disease and ascending urinary tract infection from squatting if the public toilet has inadequate water supply and poor drainage.

If patients cannot wash their hands or cleanse themselves, it can lead to secondary diarrhoea, typhoid and other food-borne diseases.

Unhygienic facilities could attract flies, mosquitoes and other insects resulting in insect-borne diseases like malaria. There is no possibility of contracting HIV or AIDS on using public toilets.

Shanghai shows the way, again

Till 2000: Like Mumbai, Shanghai had the same public toilet problems - ammonia stench, lack of running water, no toilet paper, urination on the sidewalk and fewer toilets for women.

Cut to 2007: If you are looking for a public toilet on the streets of Shanghai, just follow universal signs with distance and direction to the nearest public toilet. And a toilet helpline too. Shanghai has been trying to increase the number of public toilets and curb users from damaging them.

While there is one toilet every 1,000 feet, plans are to nearly double that by 2010. The city has 6,150 public toilets. The transformation happened because of a 200 million yuan (approximately Rs 96 crore) investment on public toilets by the Shanghai Municipal Government.

There is also a star-rating toilet system. Public toilets are assigned one to five stars depending on the quality of toilet tissues to automatic flushing. While the fee for an ordinary toilet is 0.5 yuan - Rs 2.40 - the charges for a five-star toilet goes up to Rs 4.80

There are plans for disabled- and child-friendly toilets, movable and eco-friendly toilets and water-free urinals that do not need flushing and are odour-free.

Toilet attendants learn simple English and even sign language.

Loo and behold

* The world's first modern sewer was built in London in 1850.

* More than half of the developing world's population still have no access to decent toilets.

* An average person uses the toilet 2,500 times a year, or about 6 times a day.

* Three years of one's life are spent in the toilet.

* Because of biological differences, women spend three times longer in toilets than men. But there are usually more toilet booths for men.

* No real estimated size of the global toilet industry. Since restrooms and related infrastructure account for about 7% of total construction costs, industry worth is probably in the tens of billions of dollars. (Source: World Toilet Organisation)

Flush of ideas

Five-star toilets:

He has built and commissioned two five-star toilets in the city. They are disabled-friendly with wall-sized mirrors and equipped with toilet soap and hand dryers. And there are surprise checks every day.

Having built 45 five-star toilets in Delhi in the last 10 years, Fuad Lokhandwala, proprietor of Fumes International, in 2005, was approached by then mayor Datta Dalvi and municipal commissioner Johny Joseph and invited to replicate the model in Mumbai.

Of the 95 contracts awarded to him, Lokhandwala will build 15 more by 2008 end. Currently, while the third toilet is waiting to be commissioned, two are under construction - at Churchgate and Mahim.

Building a toilet has not been easy for Lokhandwala, a non-resident Indian for 25 years. "There have been a lot of hassles, from political pressure to space constraints," he said.

From the design studio:

Water-free urinals, one changing station, two handicap-friendly toilets, low urinals for children and landscape area inside the toilet…

Such a public toilet may stand at the tip of Nariman Point, opposite the National Centre for Performing Arts.

Designed in September 2006 by Harshad Shitole, a 21-year-old student at the JJ School of Architecture - he also the won the faculty gold medal for public toilet design - the toilet will have 20 per cent more space than normal pay-and-use lavatories.

While a changing station and children's urinals were adopted after studying street toilets in Australia, the landscape idea is original.

Shitole has submitted his drawing to the BMC, which in turn has sent it to the MMRDA for the necessary sanctions. "It will take some time," said the final year student. Shitole was also approached by the office of architect Ratan Batliboi, in charge of refurbishment of Marine Drive. "They want to incorporate my design in the makeover project," he said.

The best part of Shitole's design is that there will be a frosted glass wall facing the sea. "While waiting their turn, users can enjoy the sea view and the Cuffe Parade skyline," he said. .

The buck stops here

By RA Rajeev, Additional Municipal Commissioner

Is there a target that the city needs to achieve with respect to the construction of public toilets?
No, there is no target figure for public toilets.

Mumbai has only 1,300 public toilets. Is that enough?
Not really. The scarcity is felt more in the slums since most public buildings and public places like railway stations have public toilets.

Why does it take up to three years from the time a trust hands over an application of intent to build a toilet to getting a No Objection Certificate?
There used to be time constraints, not now. Once agencies like the road department clear the proposal, work can start.

What are the problems with the existing public toilets?
There are in-built problems, the most striking being lack of space. They are also not of international standard. However, we are looking at introducing international standards for upcoming public toilets.

For more details


Check out the special on The Mumbai Project