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Abhijit Bhatlekar





Lo(o) And Behold!

Slum-dwellers in the city give themselves designer lavatories




Habibuddin orders tea and biscuits and arranges stools so that his guests can get the best view of the 20-seat community toilet in Cheetah Camp, one of Mumbai's biggest slums. The double-storeyed blue toilet is a tourist attraction.

No wonder, considering Habibuddin's toilet comes with a little green patch and its own ambulance, although it is surrounded by open drains and garbage. In fact, more than 300 such tourist attractions have come up in a city known for its stink.

In a metropolis where only a third of its residents use conventional toilets, a World Bank loan has paved the way for these lavatories built and maintained by slum-dwellers.



Once the whole world used to be a toilet. Now, the toilet offers a whole universe in itself.



A committee of slum-dwellers decides if they want a toilet, how big it should be and once it is ready, they collect money from users to maintain it. Both entrepreneurial skills and imagination come into play. There are toilets with libraries, TVs, ambulances and



other small luxuries. They're an apt, if quirky, symbol of a city known for its pluck and ingenuity.

When Dayanand Jadhav first asked if people in his Khar slum would pay for a well-maintained toilet, there was serious opposition. Since no government official or politician seemed to be involved, they thought this was a scheme to collect money from them and make a beer bar, Jadhav says. Today Jadhav, in a display of kitschy artistry, has a garden filled with ornaments of waste material outside the toilet. They run a computer and English classes and a nursery in a little room above the toilets, which helps pare the fees. Govandi's Navdisha toilet has a newspaper stand and a television so people can stay busy while they wait. Already there are more than half-a-dozen such "television toilets" in Mumbai.

While the toilets are run on a no profit, no loss basis, the committees sometimes make enough money for frills like libraries or newspapers. But this success underscores the crisis of Mumbai's sanitation system.

Shabana has come to use the Cheetah Camp toilet today although she lives far from it and finds it expensive. But the toilet closest to her, a free-for-use municipality one, has no water or electricity. A woman fell in and got stuck there the night before. So, the burkha-clad Shabana must either wait for nightfall to sit on the street for this most private act, or pay and come here.

Women face the brunt of the problem. Municipality toilets clog up as often as once a week, are poorly maintained and are unusable at night because there is no electricity. They are also infested with drunks or drug addicts. Asked what she did before the toilet in her area was built, Dharavi's Sevanti Salunkhe says simply: "I would wait for sunset." Today, post a Rs 40 crore World Bank loan to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and direct involvement of the users, a family could spend between Rs 10 and Rs 30 a month to use a clean toilet.

Channel wars are played out as men stand in queue at television toilets, others attend English or computer classes, and children are learning to use their special seats. People are beginning to enjoy living without the stink from open defecation and without the illnesses that stemmed from it.

Of course, the World Bank's policy of making the poor pay for basic services has often raised hackles. But the choice is between toilets being free but unavailable, and available for a small fee. "Now people know they can get a toilet if enough people in the area want one," says Jockin Arputham, whose ngo sparc led the construction work. The corporation now gets dozens of applications for making new toilets each month. So, it has made a much more ambitious proposal for a Rs 700 crore loan, which will be used not only to make toilets but also to connect them to newly-made sewer lines.Meanwhile, several other cities in other states are working on the same lines. Pune already has 114; Tiruppur in Tamil Nadu will soon get toilets built by communities with loans from the city's textile mill owners; Visakhapatnam, Benares and some other cities too have plans.

J. Shubha, who lives in Cheetah Camp, says she loves the new toilet but uses it only when she has to because she can't afford to come more often. The toilet committee has used the fees to buy the only ambulance available in the area, on instalments. Once that is paid for, they want to start subsidised tuitions for school children, in the toilet, of course. In Mumbai's slums, the ideal may never be an option. But taking an opportunity and making the most of it, that's a Mumbai speciality.














More by Saumya Roy






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