Why the Cleanest City in India Needs a Women-only Restroom
While on the one hand, city officials are building mega-projects and advocating the success of a variety of methods to achieve the status of India’s cleanest city consecutively, on the other hand, it is undeniable that the city is also in dire need for public toilets exclusively for women in order to bridge the gap between the number of toilet seats for men and women.
Not to take anything away from the Indore Municipal Corporation (IMC), which is now a pioneer of the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’, because it has also done a lot of things right. For instance, over 700 plus new public toilets have been constructed along with 250 new urinals and a significant number of rural household toilets have been constructed and renovated. In addition to an effective door-to-door waste collection service, various conventional and unconventional measures have been taken to beautify and maintain public spaces and. Initiating the process of taking cleanliness to the people by spreading awareness and levying heavy fines for violations along with the recent Open Defecation Free (ODF) status conferred on the city are only a few aspects of its rather commendable success story.
That being said, it is pertinent to note that the situation of civic amenities as far as Indore women are concerned hasn’t really improved that much. The general perception about public toilets among the majority of women in the city is that they are unsafe and uncomfortable because they are always adjacent to a foul-smelling male toilet. Especially lacking the infrastructure that caters to the sensitive needs of a woman in terms of sanitary napkin vending machines and hygiene products, room for differently-abled and senior citizens, separate room for babies etc. Moreover, what will take greater effort is changing the perception and mindset. A glimmer of hope emerged recently when inspector Pallavi Shukla, former Tilak Nagar station in charge, raised an issue about lack of sanitary facilities for police-women on a public platform with the SSP in-charge. This was covered in an article by the Times of India. It brought to light that almost every police station in Indore has only one toilet and most women have to announce themselves before entering. It is unfathomable how unpleasant that experience must be.
Certain cities like Mumbai have initiated an effort to improve such conditions while still facing an uphill task. The city has recently launched a number of women-only restrooms, some going to the extent of an air conditioned toilet for women. Hiring architects and designers, even former drug-addicts and convicts, to create spaces that are essentially comfortable and safe at the same time offering state of the art facilities. For example, Mumbai’s first women-only toilet launched near Mumbai Central station, built by a group of Norwegian volunteers and Samatech, a smart sanitation focused company. The toilet has all the latest facilities including a changing room, pump room, baby changing station and seven lavatories. Its proximity to the central station allows it to be perfect for women who travel every day. Aesthetically, the space has a pleasant and sober appearance. Robust industrial finishes of stone and concrete are balanced out by glistening paint and gleam of white tile. Although cost effective and low on maintenance, the toilet does miss out on sustainable sanitation.
Another example is a more experimental solution, The Light Box, by architect Rohan Chavan (RC Architects). Designed around an old tree, the restroom also includes an interactive sitting area where women can socialize. He mentions in several articles that providing a safe environment for women was the topmost priority. The toilet includes a sanitary napkin vending machine, CCTV surveillance and security guard monitoring for safety, mobile charging points, panic alarm system and flexibility in design to allow the inclusion of a cash vending machine in the future. What’s equally interesting is the choice of material. The internal partitions are made out of maintenance-free aluminium and stainless steel which complements the transparent poly-carbonate roof. The outer skeleton punctuated by walls encased in perforated steel in order to provide ample ventilation. The Light Box is approached through a central space with hot-pink benches and polyurethane flooring around the backdrop of an existing tree that almost stands like a sculpture intentionally placed. A smart move that allows the tree to branch out by adjusting the scale and proportion of the space which in turn acts as a shading device. However, while the materials provide ample safety, such a restroom wouldn’t fall under the category of cost-effective and public toilets need not necessarily be places to socialize. That being said, Light Box might not be the first women-only toilet it India, but essentially the first of its kind that offers modern construction, materials, facilities and function in congregation with spaces that are carefully planned to serve a purpose.
In my opinion, male and female public toilets should not be placed together. Mostly because they are always surrounded by men or situated in overcrowded parts of the city. The doors don’t have locks, many women face harassment on their way to the toilet, there is no designated area to dispose of sanitary napkins and they usually have a male ward or attendee only. Also, public toilets seem to revolve around functionality and accessibility but miss out on visual appeal and sustainability, which are equally important if not more. In terms of appearance, public toilets should be designed in a manner that speaks of safety and comfort at first glance. Materials with natural finishes should be used so that they are cost-effective and maintenance-free. They should also cater to environmental sustainability by adopting water harvesting/re-use techniques, bio-degradation etc.
Although, the idea of a women-only public toilet in Indore seems far fetched currently, it is something our officials and municipal bodies should consider important, to say the least, especially because the city has topped the ‘Swachh’ list for three years consecutively. Not only will it improve the situation of women by great magnitudes but will also provide a new and progressive drive towards the ‘Swacchata’ movement.
Writer - Dev Tyagi, Founder & Co-Editor, TDC