Eighteen-months-old Akhtar Shaikh squats on a pile of garbage, face away from suburban railway tracks running parallel to Andheri’s Mograpada slum. He is defecating right opposite a public men’s toilet, which is not fit to be used by children. Akhtar’s dilemma highlights a yawning gap in sanitation facilities for children in Mumbai — the large Indian style toilets cannot be used by children.
Of the over 12 million people living in Mumbai, 70 per cent reside in slums. And, 20 per cent of this population has no access to toilets, according to a study conducted by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF). The worst hit are boys aged below eight and girls below six years. They use open spaces to defecate, forced to do so by the absence of special child-sized squatting toilets.
A child’s squatting toilet is smaller in size than the regular ones. In Mograpada, residents said there were no toilets built especially for children. Seven-year-old Saniya Khan asked, “Are there really special toilets for us?”
According to data issued by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, the 692 toilet blocks built under the World Bank-aided Slum Sanitation Programme were each supposed to have one child-sized squatting toilet.
“In reality, most spaces meant for children’s toilets are used by staff,” said Rachel D’silva of ORF. In Govandi’s Baiganwadi slum, the only space allotted for a children’s toilet has been converted into a residential space for the attendant who cleans the toilet block.
Dhaval Desai of ORF said, “Even paid toilets and those built by Maharashtra Housing and Development Authority (MHADA) and Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) do not have the child-squatting facility. In fact, water and electricity are also not available.”
In Bandra’s Kherwadi, an open ground in the slum’s centre is used as a dumping-cum-defecation space for children and adults. In Mograpada, Nagma Shaikh (22) said while she used the public ladies’ toilet, her one-year-old son defecated in the open drain outside the toilet. “We then cover the drain with a slab,” the embarrassed Nagma said. In the next lane, Shehnaz Shaikh (35) complained, “The toilet has no water supply. We carry our own buckets from home. But the children living here don’t even use water while defecating.”
The situation is actually worse in slums where the civic authorities are not mandated to provide amenities, such as on Mumbai Port Trust land, along railway tracks and highways. Here, children have no option but to defecate in the open. Several girls said they waited until the next day to use the school’s washroom.
In Ghatkopar’s Ramabai Nagar, parents said their children sometimes waited for two or more days before defecating. “My child uses paper to defecate at home and then we dispose it. What alternative do we have?” asked Madina Khan, who lives in a slum along Western Express Highway.
According to the ORF study, of the 300 slum children surveyed, 69.23 per cent underweight children defecated in the open. Studies have shown that these children are more prone to diarrhoea, gastro-intestinal disorders and urinary infections.
Vanessa D’Souza, CEO of the Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action (SNEHA), said, “Due to lack of hygiene, slum children are prone to several infections if they defecate in the open.”
Even in places where child squatting platforms are available, activists claimed lack of cleanliness put children at a greater risk of infection.
Dayanand Jadhav, a social activist, said, “These toilets are seldom cleaned.” A year-old Praneet Singh has the option to use a child-squatting toilet, but his mother said the stench was so unbearable that the toddler stubbornly refused to enter the cubicle. “We can’t keep cleaning the dirty toilets, so it is better to take him to an open ground,” said his mother Reshma Singh .
Jadhav said in slums lining Santacruz West, a common platform small enough for children had been constructed which could also be used by adults. “We tried this concept and people collectively keep it clean. The toilets here are common for adults and children,” Jadhav said, adding that MP and MLA funds should be used to construct more toilets.
“Cleanliness in toilets must be a joint effort of the government and residents. Only then can they be maintained,” Jadhav said.