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Friday, January 15, 2021

Cities at crossroads: When an open door policy is not enough

Making restaurants open their toilets to the public reeks of the government passing the buck.

Written by Isher Judge Ahluwalia | Updated: March 29, 2017 12:00:42 am
restuarants toilet, delhi restaurant toilets, delhi hotels, public toilets, restaurant public toilet, South Delhi Municipal Corporation, SDMC toilet use, indian express news, indian express opinion The SDMC direction is a typical example of a quick fix, without looking at the full system, including the availability of toilets, water for flushing, the sewerage network, sewage treatment and provisions for discharge of the treated sewage into waterbodies. . Illustration by Subrata Dhar

The South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) has announced that it will be mandatory from April 1 for all hotels and restaurants in its jurisdiction to open their toilets to the public; it has given them the option of charging upto Rs 5 per use of the toilet. Since health trade licences are issued at the discretion of the municipal corporation, the provisions of this notification will form part of the terms and conditions of the licence. One can question whether such action is within the SDMC’s regulatory power, or whether this amounts to an excessive and unjustifiable encroachment on private property. But, legality apart, it is quite clear that even if legally sustainable, the SDMC’s decision is at best an imperfect solution to an admittedly acute problem.

The SDMC direction is a typical example of a quick fix, without looking at the full system, including the availability of toilets, water for flushing, the sewerage network, sewage treatment and provisions for discharge of the treated sewage into waterbodies. Instead of outlining a programme incorporating these elements, the problem is trivialised by shifting attention away from the inaction of the government and offering an incomplete solution by asking restaurants to open their toilets to the public.

The debate will focus on the right to reserve admission into private property versus the right to access a toilet in a public place The restaurants have responded that they are willing to open their toilets to ladies (some were already following this practice), but they have security concerns in opening the same to men. Also, they are concerned about hygiene, particularly because of the inadequate availability of water, to take on extra users. Since many restaurants are normally open only during meal times, this, in any case, is not a solution round the clock. Besides, restaurants are only a subset of businesses in a market: Should the others not contribute as well?

The corporation has over the past year built a number of public toilets in markets and other places which are providing facilities of varying standards for a modest charge. Since these are clearly not enough, the solution lies in building more public toilets and ensuring they are properly maintained and financially sustainable. For example, most public toilets are single-storey buildings; they could easily have another floor of toilets, thereby doubling the capacity without any need for additional land. This was planned for the Commonwealth Games, but the project did not go beyond constructing the buildings. Several of these double-storey complexes are lying closed — they should be opened up for public use by awarding a management contract to an outside agency.

The Select Citywalk Mall in Saket, for example, has several toilets for the public on all its floors, which are used by visitors and staff from different stores in the mall. The maintenance contract is given to an outside agency and the toilets are kept clean. There is no user charge; costs are recovered from the rents that shops pay to the mall authorities. It should be possible to do something similar in the markets of different South Delhi localities, for instance, Greater Kailash, South Extension, Lajpat Nagar, Hauz Khas, etc., involving the market associations in the building and/or upkeep and operation of the facilities, once land is set aside by the municipal corporation in the market, and existing public toilets cleared for double-storey operation.

One might ask how we have come to this pass. It is obviously because we citizens have developed apathy to the quality of public service delivery, cultivated cynicism about our ability to extract better delivery and looked for ways to bypass the impact of poor public service delivery by opting for “private” solutions. Intermittent delivery of water from the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) is converted into 24×7 delivery of water by households which can afford supplementary investments. The private solution involves investing in underground tanks, booster pumps and overhead tanks, such that underground tanks store water as and when it is supplied by DJB, booster pumps bring the stored water to the overhead tanks, and these tanks are connected to the taps which provide a supply of running water to the households round the clock.

Another private solution is to install water purifiers in homes to bring to drinkable standard the poor quality of water supplied by the public utility. Similarly, air purifiers are being used indoors to give our lungs a breather from the polluted air we breathe outdoors. However, “private solutions” are hard to procure when we face the challenge of managing and disposing of waste — sewage as well as garbage — from our surroundings. The municipal corporation has to assume the overall responsibility for an integrated waste management system.

Only 50 per cent of the toilets in Delhi are connected to a sewerage network — and only 30 per cent of the sewage is treated before discharge. The result is that the river Yamuna, once the pride of Delhi, now declared a legal person, is heavily polluted. The installed capacity for sewage treatment can treat 37 per cent of the total requirement, but even this meagre capacity is underutilised because sewage treatment plants are often located where sewage cannot be conveyed, or because electricity and the necessary chemicals are not available. Worse still, sometimes this capacity is redundantly utilised when treated sewage is discharged into open drains, where it mixes with untreated sewage, and we are back to square one.

A possible approach for the SDMC would be to use public-private partnership, not only to build toilets, but provide and/or fix the different links in the supply chain of managing and disposing waste. Already, community toilets are being built and operated in market places and other public areas in a public-private partnership framework, allowing user charges and advertisement charges on the walls of these toilets. Similarly, NGOs are invited to maintain and run public toilets. Sewage treatment plants can also be built on land leased by the government and capital invested by the private sector, so long as networking is assured for conveying sewage, a revenue model is in place, there is clear assignment of risks and there is a credible dispute resolution mechanism.

Finally, there is the challenge of providing toilets in the slum settlements in order to remove the need for open defecation. The Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board has been trying to engage NGOs in addressing this challenge. Community toilets are typically inaccessible, dirty, broken-down and unsafe, especially when the toilets are not located within the slums and are used by a floating population. Where unconnected to city sewerage, they need regular de-sludging. The poor would rather build their own toilets. The city must provide sewer lines or shared septic tanks linked to decentralised wastewater treatment systems, such as provided by CURE in Safeda Basti in East Delhi and Savda Ghevra resettlement colony in the North West, with the ease of making a quick connection. This saves on both capital costs and recurring maintenance costs.

The task for the SDMC is cut out and it will cost some money. But there is a lurking danger of its budget being blown overnight: Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has announced that AAP will do away with property tax on all houses in Delhi if it wins in the municipal elections.

The writer is chairperson of Icrier and former chairperson of the high-powered expert committee on urban infrastructure services

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