Public Toilets in Hyderabad Pt. 2: Critical Comments
Yesterday we published a post by Sandeep Tanniru which was a preliminary audit of the functionality and accessibility of public toilets in Hyderabad. We first undertook a process of mapping the public toilets in the city and later went on to conduct the audit. The information gathered in the process led to some interesting discussions at HUL. This post will present some of the key insights and future directions identified in the wake of the audit. (Our interactive map is embedded in the previous post.)
The data on public toilets in Hyderabad and their locations was acquired through an RTI application filed by Syed Shah Ali Hussain and Krishna Yashwant, who were kind enough to share the data with HUL. On mapping this data which provided the location of 186 toilets, we found certain peculiar patterns. Firstly, at some junctions in the city, there were two adjacent toilets. Secondly, there were many basthi areas which had no public toilets in the vicinity. Finally, we got word from a connection in the press that about 60 of the 186 toilets might have been demolished to make way for the on-going Metro construction. The desire to investigate these patterns partly drove the audit we undertook. It was primarily conducted by Sandeep, with occasional help from Harsha Devulapalli and Indivar Jonnalagadda, interns and researchers at HUL.
There were three key insights we gleaned from the audit. Two of them address the problematic patterns mentioned above. The third led us into an entirely different issue.
1. Public Toilets or Billboards?
The public toilets in Hyderabad are constructed in the (much vaunted) Private-Public Partnership mould. The Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) tried to incentivize the construction and maintenance of toilets for private companies, by allowing them to charge a stipulated fee for various services and by granting them advertising rights for a fixed period. Following which, the operation of the toilet must be handed over to the GHMC. This is called the Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) model. However, as this article shows, most of the existing toilets have exceeded the agreement period and continue to avail of advertising rights and charge fees that are higher than the stipulated amounts.
In our audit, we found that the locations of adjacent toilets happen to be at important junctions that can serve as ideal advertising spots. The construction of toilets at such places is not driven by public need at all. Consequently where there is actual need we find no public toilets because those are not locations that can serve as advertising spots. Our suspicion is that the haphazard distribution of public toilets in Hyderabad is a perverse outcome of the incentive logic. To confirm this suspicion, would require us to conduct a formal investigation into how and why the specific locations of these toilets were determined. We could get this information through interviews with representatives of the private companies that constructed them.
2. Who Suffers?
The fact that toilets in the city are scarce and not well-placed, affects a very specific “public”. It is not the middle-classes, except the women to an extent. Nor is it the slums, which are serviced by “community toilets” (which have their own short-comings). But, as suggested by Madhu Reddy on a facebook comment, the ones who suffer most from the lack of public toilets are those workers, men and particularly women, who spend a large part of their day on the road. Pavement-dwellers, drivers, sanitation workers, hawkers, beggars and the homeless are the ones who rely on these public toilets. For women, the situation is deplorable. As pointed out in the previous post, there are many public toilets which do not serve women at all. Where there are booths for women, there are concerns for privacy and lack of other amenities specific to women’s needs.
3. Public Toilet Maintenance & Migration:
One of our initial observations while surveying the public toilets was that the attendants were pre-dominantly recent migrants from Bihar. (Only 3 out of 55 attendants interviewed were from AP or Telangana, the rest were from Bihar) Another observation was the remarkable inconsistency in the wages (self-reported) of the attendants. There were toilets which received relatively low traffic with attendants receiving relatively higher wages and vice-versa. The attendants were also very hesitant to talk about their bosses or the company operating the toilet. Those who did open up, revealed how Hyderabad’s public toilets are being maintained through an elaborate “informal” system of contracts and sub-contracts.
A few of the attendants we came across claimed that they had contracts for the job, but their accounts suggested that they had actually secured the jobs through relations of patronage and received a variable allowance every month.
We also came across toilets where the attendants and some companions actually used the toilet as a living space after closing time. In one toilet, we even saw them cooking inside the toilet at mid-day. This fact alone says a lot about this vast shining democracy that is offering better days for all.
This also led us to think that the public toilets could be at the centre of a story of migration and social networks in the context of acute housing shortage in the urban space. The Bihari migrants are able to find employment (through contract or sub-contract) in the public toilets and are able to find similar opportunities for their kin in this network. In the face of the impossibility of finding affordable housing in a metropolis, they resort to making the public toilets their home.
Our insights are based on a small survey of 55 public toilets. Further inquiry could substantially augment our understanding of migration, employment opportunities in the cities, access to housing and the lives of workers in general. To say nothing of the indifference of civil society and civic administrations towards the plight of those who do not count except during elections.
Post by Indivar Jonnalagadda with inputs from the HUL team.