Sanitation is one of the most important human rights issues within the water field. This article in the New York Times by Jim Yardley describes the reality of what it means to not be afforded this right. Find the original article here: In Mumbai, A Campaign against Restroom Injustice.
"A woman in Mumbai, India, washing the feet of her child outside an open toilet on stilts where the waste goes directly into an open water source." Credit: Prashanth Vishwanathan for The New York Times
MUMBAI, India — Men and women here in India’s largest city, a congested, humanity-soaked metropolis of roughly 20 million residents, would seem bound by at least one common misery: far too many people sharing far too few toilets.
But there is a difference — unlike men, women often have to pay to urinate. So for months, social advocates like Minu Gandhi have canvassed the city, arguing that this disparity amounts to blatant discrimination and asking women to start demanding a right most of them had never contemplated: the Right to Pee.
“We all feel this is a basic civic right,” Ms. Gandhi said, “a human right.”
India has long had a sanitation problem. Recent census data found that more than half of Indian households lacked a toilet, a rate that has actually worsened in the past decade despite India’s growing wealth, as slums and other substandard housing have proliferated in growing cities. Yet what is unique about the so-called Right to Pee campaign — whose catchy title was coined by the Mumbai media and which now appears to be on the verge of achieving some of its goals — is the argument that the bathroom in India is governed by a double standard.
Like men, women in villages often must urinate outdoors, in fields. But unlike them, they sometimes endure taunting and even sexual assault. Many rural women relieve themselves in small groups, before dawn, to protect against harassment.
In Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, millions of people depend on public toilets, which are usually in dark and filthy buildings that operate as male-controlled outposts. The municipal government provides 5,993 public toilets for men, compared with only 3,536 for women. Men have an additional 2,466 urinals. (A 2009 study found an even greater imbalance in New Delhi, the national capital, with 1,534 public toilets for men and 132 for women.)
Almost always, a male attendant oversees these toilets, collecting fees. Petty corruption is rampant in India, and public toilets are no exception: Men must pay to use a toilet but can use urinals free (based on the premise that urinals, usually just a wall and a drainage trench, do not need water). But women are regularly charged to urinate, despite regulations saying they should not be.
“Even if you say you are only urinating, they say, ‘How do we know?’ ” said Yagna Parmar, another social activist involved in the campaign. “So they ask for money.”
At the northern rim of the city, inside a slum known as Shivaji Nagar, at least 350,000 people — perhaps twice that many by some estimates — live pressed together beside one of the city’s largest dumps. The exact number of public toilets is unclear but, by one estimate, the ratio is no better than 1 toilet for every 300 people. Women must adapt their daily routines: Many visit the bathroom early in the morning to avoid lines and leering. They avoid drinking much water. And they carry change.
On a recent broiling morning, Mohammad Nasibul Ansari sat at the counter in front of a decrepit public toilet, gripping 10 rupee notes in his hand. A salaried attendant, Mr. Ansari said he did not charge anyone in the neighborhood — only outsiders — yet even as he spoke, a local woman walked up, wordlessly placed a 2 rupee coin on the counter and stepped into the women’s side of the small building.
“We’re just poor people,” Mr. Ansari said. “We have to take care of our families.”
Mr. Ansari said the city government provided no money for maintenance and that he collected about 1,200 rupees, or $22, every day in toilet usage fees, from which he paid for electricity, water and cleaning. Yet inside, there was little evidence of cleaning or water. Cobwebs dangled from the ceiling; dirt and dried spit smeared the walls and floor. The ceramic squat toilets were stained and squalid. The stench was overwhelming.
“Do you really think what they are saying is true?” Usha Deshmukh, one of the Right to Pee advocates, derisively asked later. “They are cheating. They are eating all the money.”
Separately, a miniscandal erupted in New Delhi last week when it was disclosed that the country’s Planning Commission had spent roughly $54,000 to refurbish its toilets. Reflecting the sensitivity in India over the issue, at least one critic argued that the money could have been better spent on public toilets.
The campaign began last year when a coalition of social advocates gathered from around the state of Maharashtra, which includes Mumbai. Organizers in each city chose different issues, including domestic violence and equal access to water. The Mumbai group considered campaigns on housing, water or sanitation — all big problems in the city — before deciding on the Right to Pee.
“Initially, this was considered a little frivolous,” said Mumtaz Sheikh, one of the organizers. “But we told people, ‘No, this is an important issue, and we want to work on it.’ ”
Ms. Sheikh and other advocates saw an opportunity to raise awareness among women. Women now constitute almost half the city’s work force, yet many of them work in jobs with no access to a toilet. In various parts of the city, including slums, activists have gone door to door, collecting more than 50,000 signatures supporting their demands that the local government stop charging women to urinate, build more toilets, keep them clean, provide sanitary napkins and a trash can, and hire female attendants.
Dr. Kamaxi Bhati, a physician and a researcher, linked the toilet situation in Mumbai directly to female health problems, especially a high incidence of urinary tract and bladder infections. Dr. Bhati said drinking water was vital to stave off such infections, yet many women tried to reduce water intake to limit how often they had to urinate. Not drinking enough water is doubly dangerous, given that temperatures can reach triple digits in Mumbai.
“It’s the responsibility of the government to provide toilets,” she said. “Suppose my child has diarrhea. What do I do if I can’t pay?”
Municipal officials were willing to release statistics on the number of public toilets in the city but otherwise refused to comment on the issue, despite scores of requests made to three city departments.
The toilet fees might be considered nominal, ranging from 2 to 5 rupees (about 4 to 9 cents). Yet in India, the poverty line is so low that the government recently defined the urban poor as those living on less than 29 rupees a day.
“It’s expensive for me,” Shubhangi Gamre said of the cost to visit the toilet. She lives in Shivaji Nagar and earns about $27 a month working in a tiny drugstore. “It cuts into our food money. How can we afford everything?”
Perhaps the months of canvassing and campaigning will pay off. Last week, social advocates met with city officials who told them of new plans to build hundreds of public toilets for women across the city. Some local legislators are now vowing to build toilets for women in every one of their districts.
Nothing is official yet, and promises often do not become reality in Indian politics. But the activists feel momentum is now in their favor.
“Of course it’s a good feeling,” said Supriya Sonar, a member of the campaign, saying that the Right to Pee group is now lobbying for women to be hired in the proposed projects. “Our actual work starts now.”