The discussion on women's rights to access public spaces seems to have gained some momentum in recent times. The Bombay High Court last month directed municipalities across Maharashtra to provide toilets and urinals for women on the streets. Supriya Sonar, an activist with the Mumbai-based Right to Pee campaign, a collaboration of 33 NGOs that track the issue, speaks to Ranjita Ganesan about the expectations and developments since the court ruling
What have been the developments since the Bombay High Court order?
A similar order was given in 2014 as well. At the time, municipalities were asked to form committees and submit a plan. We had five representatives from Right to Pee working with five members of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. They were asked to provide a scheme last April. BMC proposed she-toilets, which are electronic toilets based on a pattern from Kerala, but we opposed that. It was tested in Navi Mumbai. However, out of nine, three do not work. You have to pay between Rs 1 and Rs 5 for it. It is unmanned, so if you are inside and something goes wrong, there is a risk. Because mostly women from unorganised sectors use these toilets, electronic ones are not user-friendly. The cost of one is Rs 6 lakh, apart from maintenance. Our suggestion was to create free urinals and we had a designer working with BMC for this. Our volunteers were able to identify 96 potential locations. Despite monthly meetings at the BMC headquarters and at municipal wards, there has been no visible change. On the very next day after the new court order, we sent a letter to the BMC commissioner requesting to work with them. There has been no reply yet. The court has given time to form a committee and a plan. We started the Right to Pee campaign not merely to build toilets but with the aim to reclaim our spaces in the city. We are trying to set up a model in Chembur to show it is viable, that it can be provided for free to women.
What administrative challenges were identified?
There were various stakeholders: BMC, the people running the toilets and Right to Pee. When an operator gets a no-objection certificate to run a toilet, we find he often gives subcontracts to another person who charges more, anywhere between Rs 2 and Rs 10. The subcontractor system leads to corruption. There should be uniform charges. Further, toilet operators say they are charged at commercial rates for water and electricity, for which they would like discounts. Financial year 2014-15 is nearly over but there is no visible improvement despite a budget of Rs 5.25 crore.
How many toilets do women have access to and what is their condition?
According to a 2012 estimate, out of the 10,381 pay-to-use toilet seats in a city of about 20 million, only 37 per cent are for women. In the previous BMC committee, each ward had come up with a survey of its population, the number of toilets and their quality. Safety was one of the concerns. The behaviour of people manning the toilets was arrogant. Even in so-called free toilets, people were asked to pay. There is a need for special toilets for women but a holistic model for men and women has to be developed. For instance, it would help if there was a single-window clearance to give no-objection certificates for setting up toilets.
How do women manage in the absence of adequate toilets?
Women control the urge to relieve themselves and suffer from infections and disease or they avoid drinking water and suffer from dehydration.
Which section of women would benefit if the changes are made?
The ruling talks of building toilets for women walking on the street. We all walk on the street but specifically these services are used by women in the unorganised sector. While some sections can afford to pay and use or have access to toilets at home and in offices, others cannot. However, it would be wrong to talk in terms of who will benefit the most. Everyone needs it.
Besides increasing the number of toilets, what more needs to be done?
The aim should not just be building toilets, but securing a basic right for women. Look at little things like what she needs in a toilet - water, a wash basin, dustbin, hooks for a bag, a bell for emergencies. BMC currently has a pay and use policy for toilets. Toilets can be paid for but urinals ought to be free. Men have free urinals but because women need four walls to relieve themselves, they are charged. There are instances when women are told, "We don't know what you will do inside, so you have to pay." This issue is also closely linked to women's dignity. There is gender insensitiveness and a gender-blind attitude that needs to go. Especially when concepts like smart cities are coming up, we must look at how comfortable women feel in the city.