The tale of public toilet privatisation by opening up access to restaurant restrooms in the SDMC (South Delhi Municipal Corporation) area is highly revealing. It is important to view this new municipal diktat in the right policy perspective.
The Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban) tasked the states and urban local bodies with ensuring that a sufficient number of public toilets are constructed in each city.
Public toilets are supposed to provide for the floating population as well as the general public in markets, train stations, tourist places, or other high-volume public areas. States and ULBs are to identify land for public toilets, and to further leverage the land and advertisement rights to encourage the private sector to construct and manage public toilets through a PPP agreement.
Roping in Private Players
Records show that the SDMC area, which has the low rank of 196 among 434 cities surveyed under the Swachh Survekshan-2017, has 600 urinals and roughly 400 toilet blocks but most of these are unusable.
Though the local body claims to have started repair work on these last months through private concessionaires, it has a dismal record of providing public toilets, with many past failures including the scam-ridden cafe-cum-toilet blocks and hundreds of dysfunctional waterless urinals that were constructed ahead of the Commonwealth Games.
With the Swachh Bharat permission to actively seek out the free market for developing public toilets, it is no surprise that the SDMC has chosen a quick win strategy to conjure up 3,500 toilets instantly, by roping in local businesses such as hotels and restaurants whose health trade licenses they control.
Quid Pro Quo with Local Businessmen?
These licenses are a mandatory requirement to ensure hygiene and security standards in these establishments, as their services have a direct effect on public health.
About a year ago, the SDMC substantially reduced the number of documents needed to grant such a license, from 20 – which included structural stability certificates, water testing reports from authorised labs, electricity and water bills, NOC from the fire department, letter from the Delhi Police, etc. – to just three: identity, ownership of the area, and the layout plan.
It is worth speculating about whether the current policy is a quid pro quo for easing the license regime for local businesses.
Laws to Facilitate Easy Access to Toilets
Now south Delhi hotels and restaurants have to give women and children access to their toilets – service that many provide anyway on humanitarian grounds. However, women and children are not the only vulnerable groups to need urgent use of toilets in public places.
The elderly, many of whom fear going out lest there are no available toilets, people suffering from certain medical conditions including Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, other forms of inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome etc. also need immediate access to a toilet facility.
This is why in the United States, some states have enacted the Restroom Access Act requiring retail establishments that do not have a public restroom to allow people with certain medical conditions and pregnant women access to employee restrooms. However, this comes with many checks and balances.
London’s Community Toilet Scheme
London, a city notoriously short of public toilets, started the Community Toilet Scheme which first made private toilets available to the general public. Local businesses including pubs, restaurants, cafes, retail stores, supermarkets as well as community centres and Council offices in the borough of Richmond were the first to participate.
The Council makes an annual payment to each partner and maintains public liability insurance while also bearing costs of signage and publicity as well as ongoing staff resource costs for inspection and monitoring of the premises.
This alternative scheme has several drawbacks including businesses getting overwhelmed in peak periods when many people may get off a tour bus and make a beeline for the toilet with no compulsion to buy anything.
Delhi’s default option can never be more than a flawed temporary fix and not an alternative to public toilets that must provide access to everyone.
Women and children of a certain social class such as outdoor informal workers and street children will never be allowed access to these private toilets by business owners and they may not be able to pay the recommended Rs 5 user fee.
Many women feel unsafe going into a restaurant where alcohol is served. There are no guarantees of universal toilets in private premises, which will make this scheme ineffective for the disabled. Unlike London, this scheme is not opening up toilets in community centres and government offices, nor offering cleanliness monitoring.
Moreover, one can only speculate as to the fate of popular private toilets during the Diwali rush in a place like Lajpat Nagar! South Delhi has ample space and government land for constructing public toilets as well as many defunct toilets. Instead of working on these options on priority, the new policy is nothing but an abdication of state responsibility.
(Sudeshna Chatterjee is an urbanist working on making cities inclusive, safe, climate resilient and friendly for children and young people.)