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Chennai continues to struggle with its problem of poor public sanitation, even as it tries to change an unflattering reputation. Open defecation is still not a thing of the past, public toilets are few and far between, lavatories built under Swachh Bharat have been neglected to the point where they’ve had to be scrapped, and the decrepit state of some city localities fail even simple Gandhian ideals of clean living.
Now, the city’s administrators have announced, again, that public toilets will be built in all wards for Chennai to qualify for the Open Defecation Free ++ status under the Swachh Bharat Urban mission (SBM ODF++).
Earlier, the Commissioner of the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) had asserted in 2017 that the city was on the verge of completing the task, and would soon stake claim to ODF status. The most recent reports suggest that 2,020 public toilets and 600 urinals have been approved for Chennai, and these are being built. Thousands more are needed, though, especially in areas where there is a concentration of economic activity and movement of people.
In 2022, Chennai’s standing on the Swachh Survekshan ranking stood at 44 among the largest cities, just ahead of Madurai, but behind Coimbatore and trailing several cities nationally with far lower economic heft and political presence, namely Greater Hyderabad, Greater Mumbai, East and North Delhi, and, just by a whisker, Bengaluru. The proverbial administrative efficiency of Tamil Nadu’s capital city should have helped it vault it to top place, as it does on the Public Distribution System, but public toilets apparently have far less political traction.
The proverbial administrative efficiency of Tamil Nadu’s capital city should have helped it vault it to top spot on the Swachh Survekshan ranking, as it does on the Public Distribution System, but toilets apparently have far less political traction. Chennai’s place is at a poor 44
A toilet law?
A glance at the story of public toilets shows that the earliest known facilities were built near the Roman baths in 1 AD as the ruins of the marble seats at Ephesus prove. The literature indicates that these were ‘pay-and-use’, which limited public access. Currently, it is shopping malls everywhere that have a good reputation for providing entry and toilet access. Hotels invariably allow only their guests to use toilets.
More recent research, especially in the United Kingdom, has tended to focus on the desirability of a compulsory law that requires governments to provide public toilets of specified design, standards and at locations where they would serve the purpose.
British Toilets Association members advocated a density of one cubicle per 500 women and female children, and one urinal per 1,100 men, besides one unisex cubicle for use by people with disabilities for a population of 10,000. They recommended that the public toilets be located at mass transport termini, car parks and shopping centres, as well as adjacent to post offices, government offices, and labour centres.
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Anecdotal evidence from Chennai shows that it is workers on the move, such as lorry, cab and auto drivers, staff of establishments and mobile eateries and other migrant labourers who suffer lack of access to public toilets who relieve themselves on the roadside. Parked vehicles usually provide quick cover for those in urgent need of toilets, as do garbage bins.
While Swachh Bharat and its Survekshan have been rolled out as a competitive scheme for states to get toilets in place or risk public ridicule, the policy raises the question whether a justiciable law would work better.
State governments have been obstinate when it comes to implementing empowering legislation, as the experience with the law on disability shows. Although The Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPwD) Act, 2016 and its rules amended in 2019 prescribe actions to be taken, governments have baulked. Even Tamil Nadu is unwilling to buy a full fleet of low-floor buses for wheelchair access, citing incompatibility with road infrastructure.
The experience with public toilets has not been much different, although it is not rights-based. At a global toilet expo held in Beijing in 2018, technology and opinion leader Bill Gates praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi for launching a mission on sanitation, which was not seen earlier in Indian politics. But it is proving difficult to make the mission the success it was envisioned to be.
British Toilets Association members advocated a density of one cubicle per 500 women and female children, and one urinal per 1,100 men, besides one unisex cubicle for use by people with disabilities for a population of 10,000
Courts orders on toilets
Public toilets have sometimes been the central subject of litigation. In P Saravanan vs Union of India in August 2021, the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court issued a series of directions, including to the Tamil Nadu government. The directions were to constitute a committee under the Municipal or Additional Municipal Commissioner of the local body within four weeks, with health authorities on board. The mandate was to provide as many public toilets as needed to meet the state’s obligations under Articles 21 and 47, among others, on the right to life, nutrition, and good health.
The court’s orders are detailed about the kind of facilities that need to be provided and about the places where they are needed, especially for women and girls. It also approved the implementation of a pay-and-use model. Here, the running cost of public facilities could be subsumed under municipal budgets, and paid services could co-exist.
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Clearly, the justiciability of the right to toilet access is not in doubt, flowing from other rights, and an alert citizenry could compel the government to provide the facility. The data on toilets makes it evident that those who feel the need for it most are women, girls, the elderly, people with disabilities and those with particular medical conditions. These user groups have been finding it difficult to convince the state government to meet its obligations under the RPwD Act, and would hesitate to open a fresh front on public toilets.
The problem, however, is exacerbated by the large migrant population and the overall high rates of urbanisation that make it necessary to expand the number of public toilets and urinals in proportion.
For the Tamil Nadu government, the search for Swachh Survekshan rankings may be necessary, but it needs to devote sufficient political will to solve the problem. In fact, besides universal free access to toilets, there is space for a business model for toilets with frills at a price, for those who wrinkle their noses at the mention of public toilets.
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