“It is better that the maintenance is undertaken by NGOs or companies”

There are 714 public toilets in the metropolis of Chennai. For a whopping 46.81 lakh people. Even, if you grant that there are a number of household toilets, 714 seems woefully inadequate for the city that is on its feet any time of the day and night.

Last year, Chennai Corporation had announced that it would set up 100 more toilets on important roads, but around 20 could only be constructed, including two on the Marina Beach, Mayor M.Subramanian said.

The question, however, is not only one of adequacy, but also of maintenance of these 714 units, having a direct impact on the health, hygiene and sanitation standards of the city. In a recent study done by Transparent Chennai, a unit of the Centre for Development Finance, at the city-based Institute for Financial Management and Research, it was found that there are issues with cleanliness, power and water supply to the toilets.

Somya Sethuraman, lead researcher on the project, said a detailed study was conducted in Zone 4 (Ayanavaram) which had 49 toilets. Of these, only 13 were found to be clean, 27 had no lights within, and approximately 80 per cent of toilets surveyed did not have 24-hour water supply.

The basic requisite for any community is sanitation (toilets) and water supply, according to S.Elango, former Director of Public Health. The maintenance of public toilets must include the following aspects – use of disinfectant, water supply, proper waste disposal and lighting facilities.

Public toilets can become a source of infection, unless properly cleaned and disinfected. Badly-maintained toilets are home to extensive mosquito breeding, and users can also get hookworm, amoebiasis, e-coli, salmonella and skin infections. If water supply is not available, the inability to wash the hands will facilitate diseases spreading through the faeco-oral route, he added.

On the health front, during the survey, researchers recorded cases of malaria, typhoid, diarrhoea, urinary tract infections and high fever among those who regularly used the toilets. “Many of the caretakers we interviewed stay within the dirty toilet compound - you can imagine the health implications,” Ms. Somya added.

The problem, V.Ganapathy of SCOPE, an organisation working in the sanitation sector, explained is that a public toilet is ‘nobody's toilet.' “There is no individual necessity that it is kept clean, no onus on any of the users to keep it clean.”

There are two types of public conveniences, he said. One, used by residents of a slum area who do not have their own toilets, and others that are used by members of the public.

The first category is definitely better maintained, because of the impending necessity of constant use, while others who take maintenance on contracts by and large do not ensure the premises are cleaned, despite charging a fee.

“The rates have increased. Instead of the Re.1 fixed by the Corporation they charge Rs.2, Rs.5 and Rs.7 for washing and bathing,” said K.Muthu, a resident of Moolakothalam.

Leader of the opposition in the Corporation Council, Saidai P.Ravi said that the tendering system for maintenance was the cause. “If the maintenance is undertaken by NGOs or companies as part of their CSR initiatives, it could work well,” he said.