A hole in the ground

Urinals and toilets built for pilgrims have little to do with sanitation

By Avikal Somvanshi
Published: Sunday 13 January 2013

Urinals and toilets built for pilgrims have little to do with sanitation

Walking around in the sectors 1, 2 and 3 of the mela, it is difficult to miss the yellow banners that proclaim the presence of a public convenience. Their numbers—46,000—is staggering. Even with the number of people expected at Kumbh, per capita toilet access works out to be the worst in the country. While paying my first visit to one, I found a catch. These were not toilets but urinals. The 35,000 independent toilets in the records are actually urinals, not toilets. Providing more urinals makes sense according to bodily needs. But reporting them as toilets is a little misleading.

A closer look at these public facilities revealed something more. The design of the urinals is very simplistic, almost to the point of being disturbing. A hole in the ground with four metal sheet walls for privacy, that’s all. There is not even water. I wonder how they forgot to mention on their website that they are going sustainable with waterless urinals. I looked around for the outlet of the hole. It was a short search. The hole directs the urine into a covered ditch right at the backside of the complex, where it just gets soaked into the ground. The effort seems more of an act to promote public decency than sanitation, though public decency is nowhere in the list of selling points of the event. Even before the festival kick starts; all the corners of the mela ground are religiously being urinated upon with the thin crowd in attendance, rendering the mega numbers of toilets ineffective in maintaining public decency, too.

Public inconvenience

Shifting focus to toilets, these are present in public toilet complex clusters. Each complex has ten WC pans. Way few in numbers, these are concentrated on either side of an open drain which flows directly into the Yamuna just few 100 metre before the Sangam. Design-wise, they don’t differ from the urinals—similar four walls of shiny metal sheets, a hole in the ground; the additions being a metal roof, an Indian style WC pan on top of the hole, and a bigger covered ditch at the back of the structure. On enquiry, I was told by the sanitary workers around that the ditch is big enough and will take a month to get full. This means each complex will need at least two for the duration of the Kumbh. They also added the plan is when a ditch gets completely full, they will close it down and dig another ditch next to it. Yet another very simple plan of action, I must note. By the way the complex is waterless too; if you need, there is a water tap outside the complex. Here also the earth is charged with the responsibility to soak up the shit.

There are the supposed 7,000 eco-sanitation toilets, too. But the only one I found was locked, so I could not attend nature’s call in an eco-friendly manner. But I am hopeful that tomorrow I can find one with its door open to humanity. Meanwhile, many unable to locate or reach these sparsely spaced facilities were seen enjoying open air defecation.

How sparse these toilets will be on the day of main bath—one for every 3,365 expected pilgrims. Just to put the situation in perspective, Dharavi has one toilet per 1,140 people.

These composting urinals and toilets, sitting on top of riverbed, with simplistic soak-pit style disposal of generated sewage, are highly dangerous. With water table just few feet below ground, this sanitation method will surely pollute the ground water. Well, it is the largest gather of human beings with a single purpose.

Unholy state of rivers

Meanwhile, the hue and cry raised by the holy men seems to have made possible what years of agitation by countless environmentalists could not achieve. There is a huge quantity of water at the Sangam, which looks cleaner than on any regular day. Diversion of city sewage drains downstream, ban on functioning of industrial units in Kanpur and other upstream cities three days leading up to main bathing days and release of extra water from canals to dilute the pollution at the Sangam shouldn’t be seen as achievement of any sort by anyone. These measures are nothing but temporary eyewash for a very small stretch of the Ganga. The bigger picture still remains exceptionally dark. None of the heavyweight god men have raised a hue and cry over the unholy state of the rivers. All the drama has revolved around the availability of water at the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna. Air-dropping a few cumecs of water over the spot would have sufficed.

How small is the stretch, the water quality of which is being personally monitored by the prime minister of India? The ghat of the Sangam is 1,128 metre, the Ganga flows a distance of 2,525,000 metre. Overall length of bathing ghats at Allahabad is 3,353 metre, counting both side river banks. If 35 million people are to take bath at the Sangam ghat only on the main bath of February 10, each person will have just 4.5 seconds to offer prayers, take a bath and move out, assuming bathing takes place round the clock. If any ghat in Allahabad is okay for the devotees, even then 13.5 seconds per person.

Wonder why no one is talking about pollution in the Yamuna here.

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