An increased focus on sanitation in urban development and its role in public health have thrown the lack of adequate public toilet facilities into the limelight. Public Toilets (PTs) are undergoing an evolution, where their role is being redefined to enable outcomes of dignity, empowerment, health and hygiene, business and tourism and good governance. Individual household toilets as well as community sanitary complexes (CSCs) were part of union government funding under previous schemes. Public toilets and Urinals which were not under the purview of such assistance earlier, are now included in the Central share under Swachh Bharat Mission’s (SBM) urban component.
Perceptions of public toilets from a user’s perspective, however have been poor. From a gendered perspective, poorly maintained public toilets engendered violence against women, as a study in Mumbai showed. A 2006 study carried out in the twin cities of Hyderabad-Secundarabad suggested that 47% of women who need to use the toilet would wait until they got home. 64.2 % of the women said they had a bad experience and 92.5% of the women gave unhygienic conditions as the reason for not wanting to use public toilets. Other reasons given included the lack of water (69.2%) and bad smell (62.8%). This points to the fact that poor Operations and Maintenance of facilities has led to underutilisation of these facilities despite them being available.
SBM has initiated construction of household, community and public toilets at a rapid pace across more than 4000 statutory cities. Since more than 90% of these cities have population less than 1 million, SBM covers a significant proportion of urban population living in such cities. 63 Smart Cities with populations of less than one million also fall under the Swachh Bharat Urban Mission. As per PAS study based on Census 2011 results, almost 12% of urban household’s resort to open defecation (OD) and another 8% use public or shared toilet facilities. In cities with population below 100,000 OD rates are even higher around 22%. It has also been stated that 20-49% of rural households which have toilets within the house, at least one member defecates in the open. The reasons for OD are poorly operated and maintained toilets, lack of water supply and the non-availability of toilets themselves. Taking a cue from rural experience, the supply through construction in these cities will not convert to sustained uptake of these toilet seats, especially public toilets, unless it is coupled with good O&M practices.
As the Restroom Association of Singapore (RAS) recognises, even the best designed restrooms which are used by users with a better civic sense, will get dirty and unusable without a robust operations and maintenance regime. Compounding this challenge in India is the assertion that “Most of the people who use public toilets lack civic sense” according to the erstwhile Ministry of Urban Development endorsed findings of an online survey. While political will (branding of Swachh Bharat), awareness in pop-culture (films like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha) can go a long way in addressing behaviour and attitudes, ULBs and Sanitation Departments must invest in and develop best practices of O&M of Public Toilets.
The presence of a robust O&M regime can bring a positive change that is cyclical – as studies conducted in public toilets in Hong Kong and parts of Africa have shown. For example, people were found to be more likely to handle things with care if it was clean and well maintained. On the other hand, people are more likely to press a flush handle with a shoe if they found it to be dirty. ULBs and/or operators must be able to cater for a high footfall in terms of sustained O&M and keep the public toilets clean and functional to invoke and sustain positive change in behaviour.
O&M costs vary widely. A study in Austria stated that it would cost 3.26 million euros to maintain 327 public toilet blocks which in 2017 terms would work out to 12538 euros (9.93L) per toilet block. This is despite most of the toilet blocks not being manned. Moreland City Council, in Australia puts forward a cost between 2.6L and 5.2L per year as O&M costs for unmanned blocks. The Pune Municipal Corporation stipulates a cost of 4.20L per year to maintain a manned 2-4 seat toilet block for 16 hours a day. O&M costs of a manned Sulabh facility in Delhi are 4L, for a 20-seat toilet facility. In Andhra Pradesh, the projected costs as per the government guidance for a 7-seater toilet are 3.66L and the human resources cost projections are almost 50% of this cost. On the basis of these limited cases, it can be seen that Indian public toilets are budgeting almost the same amount for manned public toilets as those in the West with unmanned toilets. Ultimately, the O&M costs will vary according to the contextual factors – what must be recognised is the realistic need to budget for these costs when these toilets are constructed. SBM (urban) envisages public toilets to be constructed under PPP mode where O&M is part of the concession for at least five years. There are no projections provided for O&M costs and it is left on the concessionaire to propose the same. In order to get the bids for constructing, the potential operators should not cut corners on O&M budgets and ensure adequate O&M budgeting is provisioned. New Zealand and the UK have been experimenting with PPP arrangements in catering to public toilet needs. Many of the ‘public’ toilets in their city councils are privately owned and operated as part of existing businesses, sometimes charging users a fee. City Councils in these countries have thus successfully utilised pre-existing supply of toilets in establishments to cater to demand while effectively reducing the burden of O&M.
To help with an intensive O&M requirement, operators can maximise the advertising potential. If these toilets can be kept clean and functional, it will attract more users, which will in turn bring in more advertising revenues / revenue from Value added services. It will have to be complemented with innovative strategies to deter and change user behaviour. A scheme where a user fee which can be returned partially in the form of a voucher (for the city bus service, for example) for responsible use too can be put in place. On the other hand, penal approaches that may encourage responsible toilet use could include a ‘Name and Shame’ wall for people who urinate publicly or vandalise the toilet in addition to a heavy fines. For example in Beed district, controversial means have been used to deter people from open defecation.
As India heads towards increased urbanisation, the battle for sanitation in small cities gives ULBs and potential operators an opportunity to redefine the role of public toilets-enabling mobility of women, children and senior citizens, drawing tourists, providing value added services or emerging as key public spaces. The ‘hubs’ of activity in small cities may be still few and footfalls may be still manageable – unlike their metropolitan counterparts where most parts of the city are crowded. But the challenge is still enormous – innovative design, institutionalised improvisations that change public behaviour also need to be complemented by a thorough and O&M regime that strives to turn the perception of Public toilets on its head.