The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Up against a wall of apathy
Metro Matters / Uttam Sengupta

With Calcuttans hitting the streets for pre-Puja shopping and millions expected to pour out during Puja, the absence of toilets is being felt even more acutely

Two kinds of people — those who do not have to travel and those who seldom have to walk the street — will find it difficult to appreciate the value of decent, dry, clean, bright, well-ventilated and functional public toilets.

The few public toilets that this city has (only 130 set up reportedly by the Calcutta Municipal Corporation as opposed to the 5,000 public toilets for men and 200 for women in New Delhi) stink and suffer from design and construction flaws besides poor maintenance. Wet and overflowing loos, with no place to change your clothes or to keep your belongings, are not quite ‘inviting’. Most of the urinals in India’s urban jungles are actually bare walls with a pit to drain into a hole in the ground.

The initiative by students of Apeejay School to ‘inspect’ regularly the public toilets in the city and report on them, therefore, is welcome no doubt but is just not enough. The CMC cannot shirk its own responsibility and will have to do a lot more than lip-service.

The absence of decent public toilets forces people, specially the women, the old and the children, to cut down on travelling. Going out for long hours is ruled out and this cramps their lifestyle. That’s why public toilets are increasingly being accorded an importance that they did not receive earlier.

Acknowledging that public toilets is a necessity in every civilised society, Australia came out with a National Public Toilet Map in 2001, giving details of over 13,000 such toilets, some of which are meant for the physically disabled or the visually impaired. Roadmaps in the United States routinely provide such information and there is apparently a British Toilet Association, which campaigns for improvement in public toilets.

In Calcutta, as in most Indian cities, it is of course a familiar sight to find men urinating against public walls of all kinds, which afford them some privacy. But the sight recently of three young men, standing 10 feet apart from each other on the opposite side of the imposing Grand Hotel was both annoying and embarassing. Annoying because a visitor to the city smilingly asked why the CMC cannot provide basic facilities. It was also embarassing because the traffic had come to a standstill behind the young men and hundreds of eyes nonchalantly bore into their back from buses and cars and watched them. The young men however looked intently up to the sky and were oblivious to everything else.

With Calcuttans hitting the street for pre-Puja shopping , and millions expected to pour out during the Puja itself, the absence of public toilets will be felt even more acutely in the city. Neither much thought nor much planning appears to have gone into this essential public service. It is not just Park Street, as pointed out by the students of Apeejay School, but several busy sections of the city, where public toilets are either non-existent or are just not visible enough.

The metro requires toilets of different kinds. Slums must be provided with functional, self-sustaining and utilitarian models; the business district requires clean and decent urinals while for those who can afford it, there should also be what the students in their enthusiasm have described as ‘five-star’ toilets. Most well-heeled visitors will not mind shelling out as much as Rs 100 for an hour, if only they can change clothes, shave and have their bath etc, without worrying about where to keep the wallets.

There are several other trends which are worth noting. Civic bodies even in this country are increasingly paying attention to small details like public toilets actually scaring children. The Pune municipality, for example, has encouraged the construction of separate public toilets for children, while Japan has been relentlessly promoting ‘brainy bathrooms’ and hi-tech loos. Inspired by automated toilets, innovators have even come up with a design for an “overseat” which makes it unnecessary to sit on public toilets-— depending instead on clamps that help grip the waist and lower people just over the toilet. A Japanese company has promoted the Otohime, a radio-like machine that reproduces sound of running water and drowns other sounds.

What’s more, there is increasing evidence that public toilets can not only generate employment but also wealth. The example of Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International, is a case in point. Arguably the “shit king” of the country, Pathak lives in New Delhi’s posh Panchsheel Park, moves in a Merc ( just one of the many cars that he has in his stable), runs a Rs 100 crore empire and ‘employs’ (most of them voluntary social workers) around 50,000 people. The man has also set up a ‘toilet museum’ and a sanitation institute besides emerging as an international authority on public sanitation. His critics hate his guts and accuse him of shamelessly making money in the name of ‘social service’. He himself nonchalantly claims that he has ‘earned’ it all and indicates that others too could copy his model, that is if they are able to.

At a seminar in Hong Kong, Pathak pointed out that India had to deal with “900 million litres of urine and 135 million kg of faecal matter” every day. In addition, millions of litres of water are required to flush them.

The man’s current obsession is to recycle this water for acquaculture and to find out a viable model to use the waste to generate bio-gas. Calcutta, the teeming metropolis, has a lot to learn from his experience.

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