Rural Water and Sanitation

Clean public toilets: A matter of national honour

A survey by the Union housing ministry showed that 55% of public washrooms were either dirty or completely unusable in Delhi

By Ashish Jain
Published: Tuesday 01 September 2020

A clean public toilet is not a rarity anymore in India. We find them in malls, theatre complexes, corporate offices, among other upscale spaces. But I will not exaggerate when I say that the average Indian steels himself to unsee and overlook the dirt at a public toilet.

A child who goes to a school is used to a dirty toilet, some sort of baptism by fire which educates them about what to expect from their country in terms of sanitation standards and prepares them for similar experiences ahead. The average Indian who travels on the state transport bus is used to dirty, stinky urinals at road side dhabas

An interesting incident an acquaintance told me about involved a public washroom that was clean but had no water supply. When reprimanded, the attender retorted, saying we could use Bisleri bottles for Rs 20.

Then there is another ingenious way to avoid sanitation-related work — breaking the toilet door or take away the bolts. Broken toilet seats, soggy floors and lack of soap / watery solution passing for soap are some other shortcomings one faces while using a public restroom.

All said and done, Indians have infinite tolerance for all things bad. For me, however, conversations around the lack of cleanliness in public places and dirty toilets, particularly by foreign tourists, are perturbing.

I remember watching a programme wherein a foreign tourist was talking about having been warned about the state of public washrooms in India and then her own experience of having used a toilet with urine seeping out from under the door.

A good thought behind Union government’s Swacchh Bharat Abhiyaan cannot be appreciated enough; but despite the good intent and constant effort to improve the system, it seems like an inadequate attempt at improving the situation.

As late as November 2019, a  survey by the Union housing ministry showed that 55 per cent of public washrooms were either extremely dirty or completely unusable in Delhi. Media reports have alleged that quarantine facilities used to keep patients of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) have dirty toilets and no soaps.

I want an answer to a simple question: Why cannot we levy a fine or fix a jail term for a dirty public toilet? Travelling without a ticket is a punishable offence, so is drunken driving and spitting in public (during the pandemic). Not wearing a mask at a public place is punishable with Rs 10,000 fine in Kerela. 

So why cannot it be the same for a poorly maintained public washroom? Broken fixtures and lack of water supply are glaring shortcomings that can be easily identified, verified and acted against in the form of a fine / prison term.

Malodour is another issue that needs to be tackled. Research done on this aspect has identified the compounds responsible for the malodour and their odour threshold. Currently, there are facilities in India and abroad that use sensors that monitor the odour emanating from public washrooms. Unacceptable levels are conveyed to the monitoring authority electronically.

We need to come up with similar low-cost solution that could either be installed in washroom just like a deodorant.

Alternately, this sensor could be made available to municipalities that can then use it to monitor, regulate and fine facilities that do not satisfy the set criterion, pretty much like how a policeman uses an alcohol meter to catch drunk drivers.

A clean washroom is a matter of national honour. It should be. 

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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