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Saturday, January 25, 2020

Urban absences

A stocktaking of the state of public toilets in the city is a depressing exercise

Written by Bibek Debroy | Published: March 30, 2017 12:06:06 am
Swachh Bharat Mission,  Swachh Bharat Abhiyan,  Swachh Bharat Mission reports,  Swachh Bharat Mission projects, Indian states cleanliness report,  Slum Sanitation Programme, Narendra Modi, PM modi's swacch bharat mission, indian express Swacch Bharat graffiti (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal) 

There is a dashboard for Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) (Gramin). This isn’t only about toilets. On toilets, at the time of writing (since it is a dashboard, the figure changes constantly), 36.5 million toilets have been built. The all-India coverage was 42.02 per cent in October 2014 and is 62.22 per cent now. Therefore, cumulatively, 103.3 million households now have toilets. Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Sikkim and Uttarakhand have 100 per cent coverage and Chandigarh is fast approaching that threshold. Conversely, or perversely, the numbers are low in Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh. These are through the individual household latrine scheme, community sanitary complexes are different. Similarly, there is a dashboard for SBM (Urban).

This shows 3.1 million household toilets have been constructed. 1,15,785 community and public toilets have also been built. Sikkim, Bengal and Andhra Pradesh are approaching 100 per cent coverage, Gujarat is approaching 95 per cent. But there is also Meghalaya, with a coverage of 0.02 per cent. Understandably, the community and public focus is greater in urban than in rural. That’s good news, at least in some states. However, for every silver lining, there is a cloud, and I am not going to harp on so-called laggard states. Nor am I going to focus on the rural.

Let’s talk about urban, something the average English-language newspaper reader readily identifies with. Observer Research Foundation (Mumbai) has just come out with a book/report authored by Dhaval Desai — “Finding Answers to Nature’s Call in Maximum City” (The title is in Hindi, this is the sub-title). This is a stock-taking of the state of public toilets in Mumbai and it isn’t only about building public toilets, but also maintaining them.

Here is a quote about a case that received some attention two years ago. “Mrs Kalpana Pimpale, a 45-year-old widow and loving mother of two teenaged children, died when she fell into the filled-to-capacity septic tank when the entire floor of the toilet occupied by her collapsed, plummeting her into the deadly depth below. Her body was extricated with the help of firefighters four hours later. Incidentally, the toilet block was constructed just five years ago under the MCGM’s (Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai) Slum Sanitation Programme, which mandates the contractor to ensure structural solidity of the toilet blocks for 30 years.”

This unfortunate incident raises obvious questions about contract enforcement and establishing culpability. This incident occurred in a slum in Mankhurd. Our perception, entirely valid, is that sanitation conditions in slums are atrocious. The base-level is so low that incremental improvements haven’t made much of a dent yet. The ORF book documents this, and in fairness, also documents several best practices.

Moving away from slums, what will you do if you need to visit a toilet in the area around Gateway of India? There is a Sulabh Shauchalaya block there and I will not quote from the depressing description given of this complex. Suffice to say, you can’t really use it, especially if you happen to be a woman. I have personally faced this problem, not just around Gateway of India, but in other places in Mumbai, and other cities. What do you do when you are abroad?

You look for a public toilet (sometimes paid), in or around a metro station, a tourist spot or a mall. Rarely will you search for a hotel. In India, barring some malls, a hotel is the only answer. From April 1, there will be some change in Delhi, at least for the area under the South Delhi Municipal Corporation. Every hotel, restaurant and “eatery” has been directed to grant open access to all citizens, irrespective of whether they are customers or not. At best, there is discretion to charge a fee of Rs 5. How can a government arbitrarily inflict this on hotels, restaurants and eateries? At least for part of this, I think legislative backing exists. There is an Indian Sarais Act of 1867.

“Sarai means any building used for the shelter and accommodation of travellers, and includes, in any case, in which only part of a building is used as a sarai, the part so used of such building.” This certainly covers hotels, though perhaps not restaurants and “eateries”. Several states/districts have made it mandatory for hotels to be registered under this statute. Section 7(2) of this legislation states, “The keeper of a sarai shall be bound at all times when required by any magistrate or any other person duly authorised by the magistrate of the district in this behalf, to give him free access to the sarai and allow him to inspect the same or any part thereof”.

That “free access” was meant for a different purpose. Nevertheless, rules can probably be formulated under Section 7(2). I am not sure about legislative backing for restaurants and “eateries”. These are generally covered by shops and establishments acts. But I don’t think the present structure of those Acts allows for the toilet rules we now have in mind, though I have come across boards where “to let” is spelt as “toilet”.

Once, late in the night, near Moolchand flyover in Delhi, I saw someone relieving himself on the road. He had got down from a car, and presumably, should have known better. I felt like getting down and censuring him. However, I checked myself. Where could he possibly have gone? The malls had closed and the nearest hotel was a long distance away.

The writer is member, Niti Aayog Views are personal

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