In 2004, Saif Ali Khan and Rani Mukherjee starrer Hum Tum presented a grim face of India when Kirron Kher comically compared the sights and smell of our nation with sightings of kids defecating by the roadside. Fifteen years later, even as the PM Modi-spearheaded Swachh Bharat Abhiyan aims to achieve an open defecation free country, the stench of reality on the ground is dense. While the construction of public and household toilets has accelerated in the past few years, the practice of defecating in the open continues. Indubitably, the practice has a lot to do with one’s conditioning, but the poor maintenance of public restrooms is also detrimental to eliminating open defecation.
A January 2019 working paper titled Changes in open defecation in rural north India: 2014 – 2018, published jointly by policy advocacy organisation Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE) and New Delhi-based policy think tank Accountability Initiative (AI), presented this dismal reality statistically. After surveying 9,812 people and 156 government officials in 2014 and 2018, respectively, in Rajasthan, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, the paper noted that though more Indians in villages owned a toilet in 2018 compared to four years ago, 44% of them still defecate in the open.
Aashish Gupta, research fellow at RICE, PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, and the lead author of the paper, noted that mere construction of toilets does little to change the mindset of people with respect to toilets and their upkeep. “We studied the situation in the target villages to draw comparisons between pre- and post-Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. So, the toilets constructed in the villages aren’t connected to any sewers. The pit-toilet technology is used in these areas, wherein human faeces get dumped in a pit underground. There are two problems to this. First, people think poorly about the pile-up of faeces near the house and, secondly, they consider that collecting the excreta is the job of a Dalit,” he says.
One might be under the impression that urban India would promise a much better situation. However, a walk along the chaotic alleys of Chandni Chowk, lined with shops of all kinds, reveals that the capital city isn’t open defecation-free, either. The stench of one public restroom found near the Fountain Chowk, close to Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib, is palpable even at the far end of the street it is located in. It is no wonder that even during the busy evening hours, there are hardly any users. “This is old Delhi and urinating in the open is a norm here. You think anyone cares to use the stinky public restrooms here? It’s a different class of people here. Restrooms that charge nominal fees and have designated persons to look after are still in better shape,” a local policeman rues.
Though Gupta’s research has been centred around rural India, he feels caste divide has a big role to play in poor management of urban public toilets too. “Maintaining a public toilet is considered a degrading job, to be handled by a low-caste person. Thus, the responsibility to maintain public toilets is largely entrusted to Dalits, who are neither paid adequately nor provided safety equipment for the job. This has adverse implications for the maintenance of public toilets and social inequality. I’m sure a lot more people would be willing to do the job if it wasn’t so much connected to caste and pollution in our minds,” he says.
Ankur Bisen author of Wasted: The Messy Story of Sanitation in India, A Manifesto for Change that released on August 23, says the task of managing toilets is not defined, rather it is ill-conceived and under-capitalised. “The operating cost and capital re-investment involving housekeeping, staffing, access to utilities, consumables and sewage system — crucial to keeping the toilets clean — are inadequately planned or never thought through. In-built checks and balances, involving audits, that should follow the blueprint are often amiss. These reasons largely stem from a widespread societal bias towards the job of managing toilets,” he says.
The Swachh Bharat Mission Urban, launched under the aegis of the ministry of housing and urban affairs, notes that over 4.9 lakh community and public toilets are in working order in urban India, while over 58 lakh household toilets have been constructed. This, in turn, translates into 4,170 cities being declared open defecation-free so far. With the government doing its bit, India Inc has also pitched in. Since the launch of Swachh Bharat Mission, several corporates have contributed to building toilets as part of their corporate social responsibility initiatives.
Bharti Foundation, the philanthropic and development arm of the Bharti group, for instance, announced in 2014 that it would make Punjab’s Ludhiana district free of open defecation by building 21,000 toilets across 900 villages. Dabur India has set out to build 1,000 household toilets across 26 villages in UP during 2015-16. ITC constructed 8,550 household toilets in 2016-17, while Mahanadi Coalfields has constructed 10,546 toilets in the schools of various districts of Odisha. NTPC, too, has spearheaded the construction of 29,000 toilets in 16,000 schools, covering 83 districts, spread over 17 states across the country. While these initiatives are laudable, poor maintenance of these public facilities often makes the effort pointless.
Anu Sharma, an HR professional residing in west Delhi, for one, hardly cares for these facilities. “I’ve had scarring experiences of using public restrooms. I once developed a urinary tract infection after using the restroom in a metro station,” she says. She was interviewed by FE while shopping in New Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar market. Inspite of the heat, she refrained from consuming liquids so as to not use the public washroom. This despite the market having an NDMC-operated, free public restroom that was, in fact, cleaner than most other public toilets.
A worker has been assigned to the men and women’s toilets each, who stays put till the evening. The establishment doesn’t attract many, perhaps due to the stigma that women have with respect to public toilets and the sheer convenience of men to be able to urinate in the open.
Neetu Seth, a Gurgaon resident spotted in Sarojini Nagar market, says she avoids open marketplace just for the fear of having to use a public restroom. “I prefer malls because they have all the amenities in place,” she says.