For Mumbai’s poor women, there is no place to go

There have been some improvements on the sanitation front, but there is still much to do to meet the basic needs of Mumbai’s women, especially those at the bottom of the pyramid

Mumbai: In the early hours of December 26 last year, Sitabai Solanke, 51, couldn’t find a toilet at Kalyan station, and so relieved herself in the bushes near the tracks. On her way back to the platform, a train ran over her and she died.

Claira Dias, 20, has an equally tragic story to share. Till a few years ago, children from Azad Nagar, the slum in Mahim where she lives, would defecate on the railway tracks near their homes because there was no toilet. One day, she says, a man who lived nearby lured a four-year-old with sweets and raped her there and went on to mutilate her private parts. Ms. Dias says the girl was not even given counselling, and nothing has been heard of the accused since. “Jaisa ek bura sapna tha, hum uthke bhul gaye [It was like a bad dream: we woke and forgot it]. Our children defecate into the nullah that runs in front of our homes, because we do not let them out alone anymore.”

The lack of toilet facilities for women plays out in many ways, all not as horrific, but definitely stressful.

For a decade, Saraswati Narayankar has been setting up her stall of vegetables on St. Anthony’s Road, Vakola, at a 15-minute walk away from home. She wakes up at 4 a.m., queues up for an average of 15 minutes at the pay toilet near her home, and then heads to Dadar to buy her stock. Then, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., and from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., she is at her stall. There is a public toilet a minute’s walk away, but she uses it only if she absolutely must. “There is nobody to maintain it, and so it is always dirty,” she says. “There is no way I can risk falling ill by going there.” On the days of her menstruation, she suffers the most. With no water supply in the public toilet, she controls her bladder for six hours and limits her consumption of water. “I go home, change my sanitary napkin, rest and then return to work. There is no way I can use the toilet without water on those days.”

Not far from Ms. Narayankar's vegetable stall in Vakola, Kalpana Jagde worries about leaving her provision store unattended, if she has to relieve herself. “Earlier, there were 10 shops here: a tailor, a scrap collector, vegetable vendor, electrical repair store, and many others. All of these shops were run by women, and we had a pact among ourselves to keep one eye on each other’s wares when one of us has to attend to nature’s call.” The other vendors did not have licences and were evicted, and while she has one, hers is the only shop standing. “But it means that I cannot afford to forget going to the bathroom before I leave home.”

Street hawkers, construction workers, house help who aren’t allowed to use the toilets in the homes they work in, even police personnel on outdoor duty, there are lakhs of such women across the city, effectively invisible, silent sufferers when it comes to one of the most basic human needs: sanitation. The simple act of relieving themselves is a battle, because public toilets frequently come without proper doors, with no electricity and water supply, with unclean pots and broken seats, poor or no disposal facilities for sanitary napkins. And always, there is the looming fear of harassment and abuse. They must plan their movements based on access to hygienic and safe toilets, reducing their food and water intake so they can avoid going to the toilet through the day.

The issue with public toilets is not limited to the women living in open spaces and slums alone. According to Nandita Gandhi, co-director, Akshara Centre, the problem cuts across classes, and is as important for working women. “It is a real issue for women who are travelling long distances to work. Where are they supposed to go? Many of them end up suffering from urinary tract infections.” This leads to women having to calculate their daily path to work, based on the assumption of no toilets if they are on the road, or the distance to the one they could be most comfortable using.

Absent in policy

Mumbai has 8,482 public and community toilet blocks, with 39,402 seats for women and 42,511 for men, according to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) portal (see Little relief in sight). However, the report ‘Toilet Torture’, commissioned by the Observer Research Foundation and based on a BMC study undertaken in 2014, stated that nearly 58% of the community toilets in the slums had no electricity, and 78% had no water. The problem was graver for pregnant women and mothers of young children. “Pregnant women are scared to go into the jungle due to the fear of falling,” the study says. “So, a preferable way for them is to relieve themselves in the saree and then wash it. The children also end up relieving themselves on the road as they can’t go into the jungle alone.”

In the years since that study, the Swacch Bharat Mission has been making headlines. But just how much has changed on the ground?

“Sanitation is a governance issue,” said Payal Tiwari, author of the study. “During our fieldwork, we found that even as people had the resources and the will to find space to build a toilet, they were not provided with a sewer connection by their corporator.”

On February 1, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced that the overall allocation for Swachh Bharat Mission for both urban and rural areas was proposed to be raised to ₹17,843 crore in 2018-19 (from ₹16,248 crore in 2017-18). However, the allocation for the mission for 2017-18 had been raised to ₹19,248 crore as per revised estimates, which means this is actually a near-₹2,000 crore dip in the allocation. Ms. Tiwari says, “The entire scheme has been more about propaganda. There is no clear blueprint in place to address issues related to solid waste management, cleanliness, maintenance and access. Public sanitation has got to be more than just about building new infrastructure.”

Dr. Amita Bhide, head, School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) says that while the government has been finding answers to issues related to Floor Space Index and Transferable Development Rights to cope with demand for housing, “sanitation remains one of the most neglected dimensions in planning. The toilet is the most practical, short-term, everyday need for both men and women. However, the standard that we have set for ourselves in constructing a toilet as a public amenity is so low that we do not look at women’s sanitation as more than just peeing.”

Inadequate, expensive

There have been efforts to construct and maintain community toilets in the various slum pockets across the city, some free and others pay-to-use. But the mere existence of a toilet does not mean access to sanitation for women.

Especially for those from the lowest end of the economic spectrum, like migrant women living in open spaces and slums, the cost of a pay-toilet — ₹2 to ₹10 — is a deterrent, so they will eat and drink less during the day and defecate in the open before the sun comes up. Shweta Tambe, project director, Committee for Right to Housing said, "Families end up spending a substantial amount of money on just using the toilet. Imagine a family of four members, with each member having to use the toilet at least twice a day... it is a huge sum to pay especially if they are on a daily wage. In fact, women might end up eating less or drinking less water just to reduce the number of toilet visits. In Nargis Dutt Nagar in Bandra, the public toilet is on the main road. It is very discomforting for women to queue up outside."

Public toilets in the city are managed by the BMC, MHADA and MMRDA, depending on the ownership of land where the toilet stands. As part of BMC’s Slum Sanitation Programme, 10% of funds to construct toilets come from the slum communities and the rest is funded by

the corporation. Currently, there are 750 toilet blocks in the city as part of this programme with access passes issued to local users.

Non-government organisations have constructed pay-toilets with permission from BMC, and they are expected to maintain them for a set number of years. People are expected to pay to use them for a variety of sanitary purposes, including bathing and washing clothes. Finally, local area development funds of MPs and MLAs are used to construct toilets on land owned by MHADA, but there is no onus on anyone to maintain them.

Mumtaz Sheikh, who spearheads the Right to Pee campaign, says that most toilets were constructed a long time ago, and have not been structurally audited, which is why there are innumerable cases of toilet floors collapsing. And as a result of sub-contracting the work, “Even if someone has a complaint about

the toilet, they are not addressed, as nobody knows who is ultimately responsible for them.”

Ms. Sheikh believes that the lack of a vision also comes from a perception that toilets are dirty spaces, best constructed at a distance. “Usually toilets are built next to an overflowing garbage dump,” she notes, and seen through the same lens. “So, there is nobody to clean them. Railway platforms have food stalls right in the centre, but the toilets are only on one of the platforms and only towards the end, with hardly any light, which also makes them corners for drug addicts.”

The safety issue

Ms. Sheikh says that there has been a marked improvement, with more toilets visible along highways. But aside from access to water and lighting, there

is also concern about safety. “Men do not have to worry about safety as much as women.”

Ms. Dias from Azad Nagar says they always live in fear of drug addicts who stare at them as they attend nature’s call; the boys carry blades or cutters for use if the women dare question them. “Once a lady got her hip cut. We don’t risk it now and only make use of stones around the railway tracks for defence. Screaming for help is not a solution.”

In December 2017, Akshara Centre in collaboration with UN Women, SafetyPin and Uber, released their Safety Audit in Mumbai, which brought to the fore the harassment experienced by women in the city due to poor facilities. “In so many cases, the doors of toilets are broken, there are no lights,” says Ms. Gandhi of Akshara. “The roads leading to the toilets are also dimly lit. In fact, even if they put one light in the toilet, we can solve half the problem related to access for women.”

In 2017, TISS audited access to sanitation in M-East ward. In the 400 households of Bhim Nagar, the institute's researchers found that women preferred to go to an open space to relieve themselves before sunrise and after sunset. However, they still encountered men who harassed them or even photographed the act. Purva Dewoolkar who is part of the ‘Transforming M Ward’ project initiated by TISS, says the women chipped in their own money to create an enclosed structure with tin sheets.

No place for loos

According to the national policy on sanitation, there has to be a toilet every 500 metres, and the density of toilets has to be one seat for every 35 men, and one seat for every 25 women.

Seema Redkar, former Special Officer with the BMC and now a consultant on sanitation for the Tata Trusts, says the deficit must be addressed not just by getting the funds but also factoring in the city's space constraints. “If ‘toilets for all’ has to be implemented,” she says, “then BMC would have to ensure that sewage lines are installed in every community, and this is not something that can be done overnight. It would require foresight and a well-networked plan. Besides, 55% of Mumbai's land is privately owned, so nobody wants a toilet in their vicinity.” In several older housing compounds in Mumbai, there is a space for large dustbins and toilets that drivers and domestic workers use. She suggests this concept could be reintroduced, perhaps making these pay-toilets, or for a set of users.

Ideally, Ms. Redkar says every public space — parks, gardens, railway stations — should have a toilet. “We must also make it compulsory for restaurants to construct toilets, and allow people to use them,” she says. “Only well-dressed women are allowed to enter a restaurant or hotel to use the bathroom.” All national highways should have toilets, as per the national policy on sanitation. Citing the example of toilets at petrol pumps that are perceived to be safer, Ms. Redkar says, “Toilets at public spaces

should not be constructed in isolation, but be in the vicinity of other establishments to ensure more footfall and better maintenance.”

In March 2017, the South Delhi Municipal Corporation issued a notification that made it mandatory for all restaurants and hotels under its jurisdiction to allow any member of the public to use their toilets by paying up to ₹5.

Civic plans

Kiran Dighavkar, Assistant Municipal Commissioner, A Ward, and Nodal Officer at BMC for the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, says that Mumbai has 8,100 pay-and-use toilet blocks, with 10,000 such community toilet blocks in the slums. “The ideal ratio of people to toilets is still not there, but we are working on it. The current ratio of persons per seat is anywhere between 75 and 150. By March, we will be adding 2,000 seats in the city. We are now identifying locations to build more toilets.”

Mr. Dighavkar says that the corporation’s focus will now be on constructing free toilets and it has allocated ₹50 crore for this. “Earlier, we used to give land, somebody would invest money, construct the toilet, and with ₹2 per use, it was revenue for them. But the better way, to cut overcharging and ensure maintenance, is to do away with these toilets, construct our own toilets, and maintain them through outside agencies. The housekeeping agency will be given a fee for maintenance, so that the public can use the toilets for free.”

The BMC budget has moved in this direction by providing for ₹500 crore for the construction of 20,000 toilets over the next three years. Many new toilets will be replacing existing structures.

A beginning has also been made on feminine hygiene, Mr. Dighavkar says. BMC schools now have sanitary napkin vending machines, and, “We are now promoting that all public toilets also have these machines. INOX has said they will install these, as well as in the women’s toilet inaugurated on Saturday. Initially we are looking at tapping

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds for this.” And with women-only toilets, “the issue of them not being safe does not arise.”

Better, but enough?

Ms. Redkar says she has noticed a positive shift in the scope of public toilets. “There is a sense of ownership of toilet blocks. Due to the BMC’s slum adoption programme, most of the contractors are women, and people have been demanding better amenities. There is a large demand for individual toilets, and at the same time, people are also ready to contribute to get better amenities.”

Ms. Shaikh is not entirely convinced that punishment for open defecation and using CSR funds are answers; there needs to be a long-term plan. “We need to take the voices of the communities, and have them decide what works best for them,” she says. “Otherwise, these ideas of new toilets created with CSR funds perceive communities as people without any stake. This is also the case with the Swacch Bharat campaign: it is a good idea, but where is the blueprint? We are being taxed for it, but where is the audit of those funds? What are the long-term goals?”

Till that outlook changes, till those blueprints are put down, women like Ms. Dias, Ms. Narayankar and Ms. Jagde will have to grit their teeth and bear with it.

Inputs by Siddhee Washimkar

A long way to go

• In 2017, the Maharashtra government released a report which put the Mumbai civic body in the bottom five municipal corporations in terms of construction of toilets.

• As per the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan standard, the city needs to provide 1 toilet seat for every 30 citizens. The 2011 census says there were 57,41,632 women living in Mumbai, and just 381

public toilets. I.e., around one public toilet per 15,000 women. Men have 6,568 public toilets and 2,849 urinals.

• The BMC target is to construct 18,818 toilets seats across the city in 2018. 3,044 of these will be new constructions. The construction cost estimated is ₹376 crore.

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