“Each time my children want to relieve themselves I take them out to the Vaigai riverbank. I even take them out at midnight,” says S. Kavitha, a resident of Vaigai Vadakarai Pulianthope in the city.

That the area has two pay-and-use toilets of Madurai Corporation makes no difference to the residents.

“We cannot afford to pay each time to use the public toilet. Moreover, these toilets also face water scarcity most of the time,” says B. Parimala, a resident of the same area for the past 15 years.

B. Selvi, her neighbour, recalls the Uttar Pradesh incident in which two minor girls, who went out to relieve themselves, were gang-raped.

“We always accompany our children when they go out to relieve themselves. It is not a very safe place for teenagers. When we are sick, we find it very difficult to go out with them,” she says.

There is a free public toilet opposite E. Ekadesi’s house in Vaigai Vadakarai, a few hundred metres away from Selvi’s house. But it is of no use, she says. “It does not function ever since it was thrown open for public use a few years back. We have no idea why it remains there. It will be good if it is used,” she adds. The toilet is home to a herd of cattle at present.

Her neighbour, M.K. Srinivasan, says the area has around 150 houses, but only a few of them have toilets. Others use the open space.

Open defecation is not an uncommon sight in Madurai. And it is not just the absence of toilets at houses that results in open defecation. Locked public toilets, improper maintenance and absence of water supply are a few reasons public attribute to not using corporation toilets.

V. Karthika of T.V.S. Nagar complains that she had never seen the public toilet in her area remain open. “It is always closed. Not once have I seen anyone using it,” she says.

According to data provided by Madurai City Corporation, there are 252 toilets in the 100 wards, for a population of 15,73,616 men and women. Among them, 4,66,320 people live in notified and de-notified slums in the city. Several wards do not have public toilets, as per the data.

Officials say it is not mandatory that every ward should have public toilets. “There are several wards which do not require public toilets because every household has toilets. However, almost all the wards that have slums have public toilets,” claims Yashodha Mani, City Health Officer.

L. Karthik, a medical representative, says the stench from the public toilets at Arapalayam is unbearable. “They collect fee to use the toilets, but the maintenance is very bad. In a crowded place like Arapalayam, the corporation authorities should take extra effort to maintain the toilets,” he says.

Corporation authorities, however, claim that the toilets managed by self-help groups are well-maintained. “Most of the public toilets are given to the SHGs for maintenance. All these toilets are well-maintained. Water scarcity is the main reason for some of the toilets not being maintained properly,” says Dr. Yashodha Mani.

The SHGs that maintain toilets face several issues. S.A. Umaiba, a member of Kalanjiyam SHG that maintains a public toilet in Thideer Nagar, says, “There are men who drink and leave the empty bottles inside. There are people in our area who break the lights inside the toilets. We try to solve the problems ourselves. When we can’t we call the police.”

However, the group braves the odds for the benefit of people like P. Kalpana who have no toilet at home. At least 30 houses in the area do not have toilets, says S. Jayalakshmi, another member of Kalanjiyam.

“Earlier, there was no one to maintain the public toilet and so it was in an unusable condition. Until four years ago, we had to go to either Periyar bus stand or to a deserted area near the railway line to relieve ourselves. After the SHG took over the maintenance, we are able to use the public toilet,” Kalpana says.

While the well-maintained public toilets are a boon to the public, the fact that several areas do not have decent toilets is a major cause for lack of sanitation.

Corporation authorities say they conduct surveys and identified wards where open defecation is common. The toilets are constructed based on the requirement. City Engineer A. Mathuram says 40 toilets have been constructed in various wards in the past two years. Plans are on to construct 50 more, he adds.

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