Public toilets in Delhi-NCR a ‘no-go’ area

As people start commuting for work, Patriot’s survey of public toilets in Delhi-NCR shows that you are more likely to come across a dirty one than a clean one. As for slum dwellers, they still go for open defecation even in ‘posh’ South Delhi

In a small slum of 20-25 families in Nizamuddin lives 40-year-old Pinki (name changed). Her house doesn’t have a toilet, she uses the community toilet for nature’s call, while some of the kids and adult male still go for open defecation.

The community toilet is half a km away, therefore, Pinki avoids going at night due to fear of drug addicts. “Yaha charsi ghumte hai, hum bahr balti, mug bhi nahi rakhte, kyoki wo apni daru ke liye kuch bhi le jate hai, latrine jana toh door ki baat” (At night, drug addicts roam around here, we don’t even put bucket and mug outside, going for nature’s call is not possible).

Using community toilets at a distance away is a tough task for women and children. Last month, a minor girl was allegedly raped when she ventured out to use the community toilet inside a JJ colony Southeast Delhi. A 2019 survey in 2019 revealed that 81.6% of children don’t have toilets in their home. Unavailability of well-maintained public toilets makes people defecate in the open.

This slum in Nizamuddin comes under South Delhi Municipal corporation (SDMC) — which has the Open Defecation Free (ODC) status. Not only here, children of slum areas and night shelters in other parts of SDMC can be seen defecating in the open in areas like Shamshan JJ cluster near Munirka, which is around 200 metres away from the posh Capital Court office building.

The North civic body in Delhi is the only municipality that failed to get ODF certification even now yet despite repeated efforts. ODF forms an important part of ‘Swachhata rankings’ given by the Union government.

In 2017, Nirmal Gorana, a social activist, filed a PIL in the High Court after seeing the condition of public toilets in Bhatt camp, Badarpur, He demanded accountability of the authorities for violating constitutional and legislative guarantees to people. Hearing the plea, Delhi High Court criticised the authorities: “If you maintain toilets properly, the public will never come to court”, it said.

A public toilet in Shakur Basti area where the septic tank is spilling out

Gorana told us that not much has changed there even after that. “People still go for open defecation not far from the places where they eat,” he said. “The major reason for that is that there are not enough public toilets in and around night shelters and slums as per the requirement of the population. What will people do? They will go for open defecation.”

The condition of public toilets is not only bad around slums but also in civil areas. For instance, in a 1-km range of Munirka market, there are around 4-5 public toilets. The condition is so bad that people can’t even stand there but many still visit them for peeing — these include toilets constructed on the demand of resident welfare associations.

A survey by ministry of housing and urban affairs reveals that 432 (36%) toilets were unusable; 222 (19%) were found to be usable but dirty; 206 (17.5%) were clean; 147 (12.5%) were ‘very clean’; and only 166 (14%) toilet were in excellent state. The Ministry surveyed 1,175 toilets in November 2019 and sent the survey report to local bodies to take corrective measures.

Interestingly, these clean or model toilets are mostly located in posh areas, for example areas under New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) — you can find clean and well maintained toilets in areas around ITO, Mandi House, India Gate, Delhi University but not in East Delhi or North West Delhi.

For women, public toilets are nightmares. There is not much data in the public domain about how many public toilets are available for women in Delhi but when we visited some public toilets in south Delhi, there were fewer public toilets for women. Those available were in bad shape.

The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs in its advisory on public toilets specifically talks about gender-sensitive toilets. “A gender sensitive toilet can be defined as one which is easily accessible for women; has the provision of basic facilities such as water and electricity; is clean and adequately maintained;  the design elements ensure privacy and dignity for women; is safe for women to use the facility at all times (with lighting and adequate security provisions in terms of caretakers etc.); and has provision for child care and menstrual hygiene management.”

In several toilets that we visited, we found that these toilets lag on gender matrices. In some toilets, the guard was not there, the woman’s section was locked, some did not have electricity.

The only improvement seems to be that the number of toilets in the last few years has increased a lot. Manish Sisodhia last year claimed that use of Public toilets in Delhi increased by 431%.

Despicable condition of a public toilet near R.K Puram Metro station

Toilets constructed in the last few years under Swachh Bharat Mission by both Delhi government and civic bodies are also relatively better designed. Some are clean but using them during a pandemic is not a good idea — considering the despicable conditions and fear of infection.

The maintenance of public toilets has been the biggest issue. Activists say that the NGO system of maintaining public toilets implemented by the Delhi government is not working well. Rinku Arya, a social activist who works with slum communities says, “In areas like Sava dairy, Mangolpuri, Sultanpur, Bawana, you will see the name of an NGO which is maintaining that public toilet. These NGOs get money for electricity, soap, water and for all other maintenance costs but they are not managing them properly.”

“But when you see toilets under municipal corporations, they are worse despite some charging money as well.”

Arya also says that people using the community toilets start stealing water pipes and mugs and damage them when there is no guard and proper maintenance.

Another challenge is the sewage. Arya says, “For toilets, digging the land is required for sewage fill but in case of public toilets, it gets filled in a year. Then it starts stinking and makes the place a hub for infections; people have to stop using them.”

Arya shares with us the condition of public toilets in the Shakur basti slum area, where the sewage tank is full and stinking.

Now if we go outside Delhi in NCR region, public toilets in Ghaziabad, Noida, Faridabad — the condition of public toilets is far worse. In Delhi, you can search toilets on Google maps — you can map them in these cities too but only a few of them. Condition of these toilets is worse and residents of Ghaziabad as well as Faridabad told us that a few toilets that are usable are not free of cost — you have to pay Rs 2 or 5 for using them (many of them are run by private players).

“The population of Khora colony in Ghaziabad is 1,90,005 as per 2011 Census, it has Delhi on one side and Noida on other. We don’t have enough public toilets here. I have only seen one pink toilet (gender-sensitive toilets equipped with sanitary napkin vending machines) here,” said Aman Rawat, a resident of Ghaziabad.

Public toilet in Munirka market

Gorana also highlighted the condition of community toilets in Faridabad. “There is a colony of former bonded labourers near a greenfield colony of Ghaziabad where Haryana government has rehabilitated these labourers and provided space for them but the community toilet that they are using is despicable. Water supply isn’t there, the toilet stinks very badly,” he said.

We tried contacting DM offices of Ghaziabad and Faridabad for data and their responses. We will update it in an online copy of this article as we get the responses.

Public toilet and Covid

Two China based scientific studies have recently established the public toilets are not safe to use during the Covid pandemic. One which was conducted in two Wuhan hospitals published in a scientific journal Nature says that  aerosol concentration which can carry the virus is highest in public toilets. Another study published on ‘physics of fluids’ establishes that flushing spews out clouds of aerosol particles carrying viruses. These two studies suggest that public toilets are some of the most dangerous places during Covid.

Public toilet in Vasant Vihar

These investigations show Coronavirus can be infectious — when COVID-19 positive person defecates, germs settle in these toilet bowls healthy people who use them afterwards can get infected. Studies say the new Sars-Cov-2 in faeces can remain upto a month.

Sara Gibbens in her article for National Geographic on risk of Covid infection with the use of public toilets argues, “While the toilet plume effect has been studied for decades in relation to other diseases, many questions remain over its role in spreading germs, including the one that causes Covid-19. Neither the World Health OrganiSation nor the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention thinks it’s very likely Covid-19 can be spread by bowel movements leading to accidental consumption of virus particles, a route medically termed fecal-oral transmission.”

“Fecal transmission is unlikely to be a major mode of transmission, even if it proves to be plausible,” E Susan Amirian, a molecular epidemiologist at Rice University in Houston told National Geographic. She says using public restrooms by taking proper precautions and maintaining social distancing are less risky than attending public gatherings as the major cause of transmission is people to people transmission.

In India, where public toilets are typically dirty, these concerns become more prominent. In most of the public toilets, spitting is normal and water supply is erratic, even in metro cities. Toilets in malls and offices are cleaner, still people are sceptical about using them.

Public toilet near Bhikaji Cama

Since the Covid pandemic, people have started carrying soap and tissue papers with them while traveling. “I have used the public toilet only once since pandemic, I carry disinfectant sprays, sanitisers for emergencies I senitse everything before using. Although I use my office toilet but I carry my soap and tissues with me,” says Urvashi Vyas.

So it can be conclusively said that having a separate toilet is a privilege and since Covid, it has become pertinent to think how to make public toilets safe and accessible because a significant number of the urban population would be using them.

We can’t compare public toilets of European countries with India, but authorities need to realise the importance of sanitation.It is, however, true that after the Swachh Bharat Mission started, there has been a significant overhaul in sanitation practices and number of toilets built: it is not enough but we need to do more to achieve better hygiene.

(Cover: Representational image: Getty)

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