I can never forget what I saw inside a bucket in a toilet on National Highway 75 in Karnataka. Algae and larvae, or simply put, the eggs of worms and mosquitoes breeding on the water surface. I had gone to urinate when my long-distance public bus from Sakleshpur to Bengaluru had halted for passengers to relieve themselves. I had expected to see water in the bucket as any normal person would, so you can imagine my disgust. I raced out, unable to use the toilet, and suppressed the urge to urinate for the remaining journey.
It gets worse. The facility was unmarked. It was frightening to search for it in the dark. A strange man, who I later found out was visually impaired, was sitting outside the facility, charging people ₹5 to use the toilet. There were no sign-boards or demarcations of toilets for men, women, and others. There were no lights inside or outside. I had to use the light on my cellphone to find my way.
Inside was a different kind of hell. Doors with broken locks, missing taps, broken commodes, no mug, soap or a dustbin; a pile of soiled sanitary napkins rotting away in a corner.
When I called out for water, the man said there was none. That explained the terrible stench. This sorry excuse for a toilet that had not been cleaned in days!
If this is making you sick, imagine the plight of thousands of women who are forced to use such facilities every single day when they travel the 350-kilometre stretch from my town Sakleshpur.
What is worse is that unlike most men who can disregard the situation, women cannot defecate in the open because of how unsafe it is. Neither do we want to urinate outdoors.
Women are damned whether they use such toilets or not. If we force ourselves to use the facility, we are exposing ourselves to infection. Women like me who cannot get themselves to use these toilets, end up suppressing the urge to urinate.
When we do this for long periods—like the 6-hour journey I take twice a week—we risk contracting urinary tract infection, which if not treated can lead to sepsis and death. My diabetic mother who needs to urinate every two hours dreads travelling to Bangalore for this very reason.
As a social worker who travels a lot on this stretch of NH 75, I can confidently confirm that these appalling conditions exist in all 42 toilets along the way. This includes 14 built under the Swachh Bharat Mission.
Filled with frustration, I filed a Right to Information application. I even called the helpline of the National Highway Association of India where two drunk men shouted at me for complaining about the toilet.
The time for asking questions is over. It’s time to act. I believe that only the government, the Swachh Bharat Mission and the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) can fix this rot.