The Corporation has announced that it will install 5,000 modern toilets made of high-density polyethylene or polycarbonate sheet cubicles measuring 1.2m x 1.2m each

Chennai is a city of five million people and it has 714 public toilets. More than half of them are not in a condition to be used and the corporation has been demolishing a few old toilets every month. It is no surprise that one hardly finds a toilet in most public places.

Norms recommend that one public toilet must be provided for every 60 persons in a city. This means that the city is short by thousands. Even if one argues that such standards are applicable only to developed countries, even by a reduced norm, Chennai would fall short grossly.

How then would one put an end to open defecation? Urban poor who depend on shared public toilets are the worst affected. Even if they are ready to pay to use a public facility, there are hardly any options and the few toilets that are in a decent condition are not easily accessible.

A study conducted by Transparent Chennai, an NGO, found that more men than women use public conveniences. In some places, toilets for women are used by men. In most facilities, the space earmarked for bathing and washing clothes is underused due to scarcity of water.

Such a situation also takes a toll on children. It impedes in their toilet training and many children do not want to use them as they are dirty. A study among school children in Kameshwaram (Nagapattinam district), by Friend In Need and United Nations University at Maastricht, Netherlands, found that many children prefer to urinate in the streets as the school toilets are not very clean. The funds allocated for maintenance are minimal and schools concentrate on providing for laboratories and sports facilities rather than maintaining toilets.

The Corporation has announced that it will install 5,000 modern toilets made of high-density polyethylene or polycarbonate sheet cubicles measuring 1.2m x 1.2m each. The toilets will be located adjacent to cinema halls, shopping malls, bus termini, markets and other public spaces. The question, however, is if this will help matters.

It is not just about scaling the numbers. Location, design, privacy and safety are critical issues too. Ideally, one shouldn’t need to walk more than 15 minutes to find a public convenience. Experts say there is need for more urinals.

As far as design is concerned, India has not given it much thought. We lack innovation in design for people with specific needs, such as the elderly or the differently-abled. Even for others, the design has to be hassle-free. It should also be made attractive for children.

The cubicles proposed by the Chennai Corporation have no space for a caretaker. There is no space for washing clothes or bathing. In the past, toilets with caretaker have been maintained better.

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Civic issues & HealthMay 14, 2012