Since the lockdown began on March 25, one of the most affected groups are people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. The news media is filled with stories about migrants leaving the city to go back to their native states, and of those who are staying back in the city but are barely able to sustain themselves. We would like to draw your attention to a crucial issue that hundreds of people within the city are facing amidst the pandemic – access to public toilets.
COVID-19 is a disease that has no definitive cure yet. As stated by UN-WHO, and later the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (GOI), preventive measures emphasize on washing hands and keeping oneself clean. However, for many people belonging to lower socio-economic groups, including people who live on the streets, this has always been a privilege. Their only way to access toilets is through public toilets and that access comes at a cost for them, even if they don’t have the means to pay for it.
We are an organization that has been working on various issues of child rights for over three decades now. One of our teams at Prerana works closely with children who have been rescued from begging. These children along with their families often live on the streets or in makeshift shelters. Through the experiences of our team, while working in communities in the Mumbai area, we have learned that people pay a minimum of Rs 5 to access toilets or bathrooms.
On April 17, 23 days into the lockdown, the BMC announced that all public toilets could be used free of cost till the lockdown was lifted. However, our field experiences tell us that the same is not being implemented. While following-up with one of the children who we work with, she shared, “Didi, we told them (the toilet managers) that the government has said that the toilets are free to use. When we told them this, they got angry and said ,’Our homes run on the money you pay us. If you’ll stop paying, how will we manage our homes and families?’ Didi, if that is the case, how can we not pay to use these toilets, they force us to?”
This is a major issue of access to civic and essential amenities amidst a global health crisis. We would like to bring this concern to your notice that while the directive allows for free-use of public toilets, poor implementation is affecting access. The communities that we work with are high-risk communities as they have very limited access to toilets, water, and sanitation facilities. These inequalities get amplified amid a pandemic when their income is negligible but the expenses remain the same.
In 2017, Mumbai was declared Open Defecation Free (ODF), but with no money to pay for use of public toilets, those living on the streets and in slums (which lack adequate amounts of toilets) have no choice left, other than defecating in the open. This is a huge health risk for them in ordinary circumstances too, let alone amid a health crisis. Keeping up with the measures to ensure public hygiene, the Ministry of Home Affairs has also made spitting in public an offence, however, defecation in public might become a major health concern too, if toilets are not made accessible free of charge.
Lack of toilets affects women and children as limited access to public toilets compromises their safety and makes them vulnerable to harassment. It also raises concerns about child protection.
While the BMC may have announced that public toilets are free to use, we expect its implementation across the city, in a way that all groups are included. Going ahead, we would also urge the authorities to build more toilets to ensure the availability and accessibility of sanitation and hygiene facilities. We hope that this matter will be taken seriously to ensure that the marginalized do not have to suffer greater risk to COVID-19 due to a lack of access to public toilets.