Where: New Delhi, India

August 3, 2000 : As a kid, I had a big problem going out. I hated the thought of travel. It’s not that I was a stay-at-home type. I liked visiting people, places. But travel I hated. For, in the midst of a particularly long journey, I would desperately want to go to the toilet. My parents would ask me to hold on, as there were no suitable public toilets for girls. I would try but start to fidget again. My parents would search for toilet, none would be found suitable. In fact, most of the time, none would be found at all. How I hated travel!

I’m a grown-up now. But my problem with toilets, or the lack of them on public roads, remain. And I’ve found out that I’m not alone. Most women have a similar problem. And the reason is obvious. Indian cities don’t have decent public toilets for women. The ones that are there, are so filthy that few would dare to enter them.

Toilet Matters [Illustrations by Sudheer Nath]
Toilet Matters [Illustrations by Sudheer Nath]

Take the case of Delhi, the city I live in. Delhi has a sex-ratio of 892 females per 1000 males. Which means that for every 1000 male Delhi-ites, there are 892 females. So you would think that there are an equal number of public toilets for both men and women.
Well, you are mistaken. While men have 5000 public toilets for themselves, women have only 200.

Now listen to what the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) has to say about this. The MCD is the government agency in charge of the city’s civic facilities. Which means that it is the MCD’s job to construct and maintain toilets. But it says that there are fewer toilets for women because the ones that are there are often used for “anti-social activities”. And it is to prevent such activities, that the MCD does not construct toilets for women. Just what are these anti-social activities? The MCD doesn’t say.

Vibha Parthasarthy, chairperson, National Commission for Women, says all these are mere excuses. She says that MCD’s decision could stem from the belief that women belong inside homes and men are the ones who have to go outdoors. And so it discriminates against women even on toilet issues. Forcing them to seek ‘relief’ in various other ways. Like going into restaurants and buying food only so they can use their toilet facilities. And knocking on the doors of strangers in strange localities, begging them for some loo ‘hospitality’.

But while men might have access to more toilets, most of these are dirty and ill-maintained. Many don’t even have a door or running water.

A couple of years ago, the Delhi government granted Rs. 20 million to the MCD for constructing public toilets. Nothing has happened so far. Many people are suggesting that MCD should privatise this service and give it to non-governmental organisations like Sulabh International. Sulabh has pay-and-use public toilets all over the country.

The lack of toilet facilities in India jars a little more given the splendid record of the India in the toilet department. Three thousand years ago, to be precise. When the wealthy Harappan civilisation flourished in India. It had drainage facilities of the highest order with effective sanitation. Then there is the Manusmriti Vishnupuran, an ancient Sanskrit text written around 1500 B.C. The book has shlokas or verses on toilet manners – right down to how far away from water sources it should be ‘done’.

But we Indians haven’t been able to live up to all the lofty hygienic standards of our ancestors. Somewhere down the line, all the standards seem to have gone down the drain.

The Chinese too, paid a lot of attention to toilet manners. Archaeologists have found an antique latrine in the tomb of a king of the Western Han Dynasty in China. Complete with running water, a stone seat, and a comfortable arm rest. The king ruled more than two thousand years ago. China claims that this was the world’s first flush-toilet.

This is bad news for the British who believed that Thomas Crapper, a 19th century London plumber, was the first to invent the flush toilet. Crapper invented a device or a siphon system, which could be used to flush the pan. He also installed toilets for Queen Victoria.

And in case you were wondering why the toilet seat is called the throne, you can take a look at the model of Louis XIII’s toilet (above). The French monarch sat on a toilet shaped like a throne.

From where he presided over his court! And what about the smell? The poor courtiers had to bear it no doubt. And not even dare to make a noise about it!

792 words | 7 minutes
Readability: Grade 5 (10-11 year old children)
Based on Flesch–Kincaid readability scores

Filed under: world news
Tags: #india, #travel

You may also be interested in these:
Basket-making in India
Humble Rickshaw Gets a Face-lift
Ratha Yatra
A Tale of Two Wonders
Glimpses from Gandhi's Life