For most people, finding a way to leave the more unsavoury portions of our past behind seems to be a recurring theme in our lives. Some get lucky and manage to rehabilitate themselves, while others have to hit rock bottom before something catlayses a shift in their mindset. For 15 Norwegian ex-convicts and drug-addicts turned yoga devotees, building public toilets for the thousands upon thousands of women that travel through Mumbai Central Station on a daily basis has become a way to give back as they build a more positive future for themselves.
The Mumbai municipality estimates that there is around 1 public toilet per 2,000 people, and two thirds of those toilets are reserved for men. Take into account that a good chunk of the remaining toilets are so poorly maintained—and hence a woman is more likely to contract a disease—and the numbers are far from pretty. Add in the very likely possibility of sexual harassment at the few hygienic havens for women to change and use the loo and you have a seriously dire situation. The reality is the commuting women of Mumbai often drink less water and hold their bladder, sometimes up to 13 hours, because of these prevailing issues. If you’re thinking, ‘that sounds unhealthy’, yes it is very unhealthy and it needs to stop.
That’s why our friends at Samatech (a clean energy company) Akshat Gupta and Keith Mascarenhas, designer Tanya Singh, and Norwegian karma yoga prodigy Alexander Medin worked together to make life a little easier for our city’s women. Tanya Singh, the designer of this project, says it best “The basic toilet box is not enough for today’s Indian woman. She deserves more.” In the team’s Design Concept Singh outlines the progressive forethought this project was structured on.
“It addresses specific needs for feminine hygiene, offers child stations for mothers, and changing rooms for commuting professionals. The design concept it practical. The materials are easily maintainable and locally procured. While safety is the cornerstone, the design embodies sophistication and a modern edge. We will create a sustainable template to overcome the toilet insecurity women face everyday. It’s about time…”
You are probably wondering, how the heck do Norwegian ex-cons fit into this scenario? Well, they are a part of Alexander’s karma yoga group Back In The Ring. Alexander learnt yoga and Sanskrit in Mysore and became one of the few elite, celebrity yoga instructors. However, Alexander realised there was a haunting irony in his commercialisation of yoga, which led him to drop his upper echelon clients and immerse himself in selfless work, much of it involving the support of Norwegian ex-cons — for them he created Back In The Ring. One of their leading principles is a Gandhi saying, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
And that’s exactly what they did. As Samatech Co-Founder Akshat comments, “One of the things that was wonderful to see was their intention, they wanted to give themselves to the cause whatever the task.” The Norwegians put in their backbone to create the facilities for Mumbai women at the mouth of Mumbai Central Station and their hard work was inspirational to say the least. They not only did something beautiful for others, but in turn they did something beautiful for themselves. Akshat remembers the group’s arrival from Norway, “When they arrived some of them came with puffy eyes and track marks on their arms from shooting up heroin.” He continues, “By the end of the whole month of working with them and watching them grow, hearing their stories, it was uplifting. Very uplifting.”
The group put together eight paid toilets and at least three unpaid toilets (ongoing talks with the municipality suggest additional ‘free’ toilets will be added) at Mumbai Central Station, and the corporate backers, Jindal, have agreed to take over the maintenance of the toilets for the next five years. “The project focused on the longevity of these facilities, from materials to maintenance plans,” says Akshat.
This is a strong step forward for a cleaner Mumbai, however, this ‘positive’ story highlights a few issues that are often glossed over in moments of progress. The unveiling of the toilets at Mumbai Central Station went viral. Akshat was happy people were spreading the word on Facebook, recieving millions of views and thousands of comments, nevertheless, people often graft to empty one liners that are misdirected. For one, Akshat remembers the majority of the comments trashed the municipality and the government for not taking more initiatives like this as well as relying on help from abroad.
“Unfortunately one of the negative things about going viral with 2. 8 million views and many comments is that many people shamed the municipality. However, at the end of the day, the real shame is on us. The municipality is a system, they were at least forthcoming. The message people should focus on, instead of blame, is how these Norwegian ex-convicts, whose lives were full of self-blame through drug use and crime, wanted to stop living a life of blame, they wanted to start helping. That’s what we need.”
In Akshat’s pragmatic mind, the municipality is a system, and inherently is a slow vehicle with many flaws. There is not too much that can change that, at least in the immediate future. The municipality gave permission for the group to work at Mumbai’s largest station, allowing the project to have the maximum beneficial impact it could have. So it is not like they don’t care, they are just a naturally inefficient entity, which is sad but true.
If you want our city to be better you have to help, that’s the reality. With Akshat and Keith outfitting vacuum toilets in a Bandra slum, the Norwegians’ eagerness to return to India for another project, and others across the city doing their part, we will always have a source of inspiration. However, if we’ve learnt anything from this story the strongest source of inspiration comes from yourself. So the next time you complain about the many problems our city faces, ask yourself, is there anything I can do to help?
All Images Courtesy of Samatech.