While I was working (and struggling) in Mumbai, living in a matchbox in Bandra, I’d make a weekly trip to a close friend’s house in Borivali. The last time I went, I made the mistake of drinking coke while on my way. Why do I call it a mistake? By the time I reached Borivali station, I felt like my bladder was about to burst. I’d never used a public toilet before, but this time, I felt like I had no choice. I made my way to the toilet at the station, only to find the floor wet and covered in faeces….so I decided to wait it out until I reached my friend’s house. The auto ride must have been about 15 minutes, but it felt like it took about a year. Not one option presented itself as a feasible place one might relieve themselves in on the way. Once I reached, I dashed into his toilet, even before exchanging the customary pleasantries with his parents. After this incident, I made sure to never drink anything, not even water, while I was travelling any distance that took me more than 45 minutes to cover.
This was, of course, not the first time I had to answer the call of nature while out in public. The more I considered it actively, I realised that each time it happens I either “hold it in” till I get home, or go into the nearest coffee shop. Malls, however, are the best option – the toilets are clean, and at least you avoid the stares from servers who are well aware of the fact that you didn’t exactly walk into the café to buy an overpriced cappuccino.
As a woman, it makes me angry that I can’t even pee when I want to. “Holding it in”, avoiding water, slinking into coffee shops–these are just a few things we have to do because sanitation infrastructure in Mumbai has failed women.
As of 2015, only 37% of the 10.000 pay and use toilets in Mumbai were for women. 10,000 toilets for the whole of Mumbai, let that sink in. As per the 2011 census, Mumbai has a population of over 18 million people, so, for every 1800 Mumbaikars, the city has just one toilet. Over half of these are not open to women, so you can only imagine the number of women walking down the road who are forced to put themselves at risk of various illnesses just because they have to hold their pee in, sometimes for hours on end.
We talked to a few women living, studying and working in Mumbai, to get a small sense of the problem. “There are more vada pav stalls in Mumbai than toilets. They’re not easy to find.” says Suman, a journalist. “As someone who pees a lot, the lack of public toilets has been a huge problem for me. Especially when I’m on my period, I need to go in and change my sanitary napkin, and when I need to wash my hands after, there’s never any soap”. She adds that she’d only use a public toilet in dire emergency. A few women brought up the issues they face, especially during their periods. Priyanka, 25, says that public toilets need to store sanitary napkins for women.
In their book, Why Loiter, authors Shilpa Phadke, Shilpa Ranade and Sameera Khan point out that the toilets in the city and their design simply seem to assume that menstruating, lactating and pregnant women do not exist–just another reflection of the fact that public spaces in Mumbai are designed keeping only a male, able-bodied user in mind.
This point is only reaffirmed by Surabhi, who says that a lot of public washrooms have only Indian style toilets, which are hard for her to use due to recurring back pain. She adds, “I think I would prefer a bathroom in a mall/cafe rather than a public restroom because they are more likely to be clean, and ensure privacy and safety…especially because sometimes the bathrooms don’t have a proper lock or don’t shut for whatever reason”. Aastha, an advertising professional, says “These responses just go to show that the mere provision of toilets (which is also severely lacking) isn’t enough to make women use them. Cleanliness, safety and availability of soap, running water and sanitary napkins are crucial. Upasana, a student, says she “looks for malls, restaurants and the like,” and adds that she always pees only before and after alighting a vehicle. “Once I had to beg a bus conductor to stop the bus at a petrol pump just so I could go pee.”
Deepa, 51, says that when she’s around Colaba, she walks into the Taj to use the loo. “I sit around in the lobby for some time, and then I do what I have to and leave! I’d never use a public toilet. They’re so dirty. I’d rather wait till I reach home, or go to a mall. The toilets in malls are very clean.” Priya, 20, a student who travels every day from her home in Dahisar to Churchgate, says the eateries outside stations are a godsend. “I have used toilets in stations, but the floors are always wet, they’re smelly. Outside Churchgate station, I use the toilet at Burger King instead.”
So what’s going on here? It seems as though the very provision of toilets is built on the assumption that maybe women do not venture out in public at all, and even if they do, only in negligible numbers. The state of public toilets in the city is thus a reflection of women’s restricted access to public space, and only serves to reinforce these restrictions. “The fact that it’s normal for women to be out, and to want to pee while we’re out, is just not taken seriously! At least that’s what I think, seeing the state of the toilets”, says Aastha, an advertising professional.
Far more importantly, however, it’s impossible to ignore that these accounts reflect the only an urban, middle class perspective–not all women have the luxury of walking into malls, hotels and cafes to relieve themselves. There have often been times when individuals have been barred from entering these spaces just for looking a certain way. Class dictates access, so where do working class women go? “Ensuring adequate sanitation and clean, safe public spaces seems to be the least of our government’s problems. Apart from the problems faced by women like you and me, In a city like Mumbai, where space is a pivotal issue, densely populated slums will have just one or two toilets, where inhabitants are expected to bathe and do their business, which must be especially uncomfortable for women. I think that says a lot about how seriously authorities take women’s issues,” says Suman.
A friend’s domestic help, who lives and works in Mahim, talks about her experience. “I live in this area, but I have family who live about an hour and a half away. I try not to drink water before I leave for my sister’s house.” Her reasoning wasn’t surprising in the least. “There have been times when I wanted to use the bathroom on my way...but the bathrooms at stations are so smelly, I have to hold my breath the entire time. It’s very uncomfortable, but what can I do,” she shrugs.
“I had to go.”
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