Linfen in China offers a significant lesson to Indian cities. It convincingly shows that simple, but vital things such as public toilets are as critical as any large infrastructure project to make cities liveable. For long, Linfen was one of the worst cities in the world to live in. But, in the last four years, it has turned around dramatically, improved living conditions and recently won the UN-Habitat's international best practice award for the Asia and Pacific region. At the core of Linfen’s revival and the reason for worldwide attention is the ‘toilet revolution’ that began in 2008. Concerned by the poor quality and numbers of public toilets — only 12 of them for a population of 600,000 — the local government constructed and retrofitted 200 toilets in and around the city. Smart design has changed people’s perceptions and about 20 million use them every year. In contrast, Indian cities, which are grossly underprovided in terms of public toilets, have not shown any urgency to improve the situation. For example, Chennai, which needs about 6000 public toilets, has only 714, and Nagpur, which needs more than 3000 toilets, has 318. Even the existing ones are poorly maintained, badly located and hardly used. This persisting neglect has led to woeful sanitary conditions.

Providing toilets to the 15 million urban households that do not have them is a priority. Equally important is to provide toilets in public places. They are an integral part of the civic amenities and those who actively use the city need them. Organisations such as Sulabh International have done well to build low-cost and easy to maintain toilets, but they are constructed more to address the problem of inadequate toilet numbers at the household level. What is needed is a scaled up and concerted effort to improve the status of public toilets. Designs have to radically change and turn this everyday public amenity to an object of civic pride. Anti-vandal fittings, enhanced safety measures and aesthetically pleasing colours combined with better location, good maintenance and recycling of resources would help meet this objective. An inclusive city begins with the public toilet. There should be ‘potty parity’ — sufficient numbers of toilets for women users — and special needs for the disabled must be accommodated. Local bodies should compel all road building and civic projects to allocate space for this purpose. They could also try innovative schemes such as the one practised in the United Kingdom, where the government pays private establishments to keep their toilets open for public use. The health of a city is inextricably linked to its toilets and it is imperative to provide them in sufficient numbers.

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