The debate about smart city had not yet heated up when i first took charge of BMC last year. The immediate concerns were the usual sanitation, pending works, employee issues etc. It was during the touring of the city for acquaintance and subsequent enquiry with the residents of this beautiful city that the issue of adequate toilet facilities for ladies in the city came up as a discussion point.
The first input received was of shortage of a clean, convenient toilet facility at important market place like New Market. it was astonishing to know while heading the municipal administration, that inspite of scores of pay and use toilets on the datasheet, public urination was almost a norm and it was an inconvenient situation for the citizens esp for the ladies. given the social norm most of the ladies avoided the pay and use toilets for various reasons (instinctive embarrassment, male receptionist, cleanliness issues, antisocial setting-call it ‘shady’ in casual tongue!). it was obvious that something had to be come up with to address this problem of the fairer sex first and then address the ‘urination in public’ syndrome of the Indian Male. Also it was amply clear that in the name of providing more facilities to the females, mass installation of stand-alone structures in the middle of the market opening into the public were not acceptable.
It is a settled fact that females need to use the loo more frequently than males given the smaller size of bladder plus they are more susceptible to urinary tract infections given the same anatomy. add to that the gynaecological issues, any modern, ‘smart’ city is bound to have ample, convenient, socially inclusive toilet facilities for its ‘half’ the population. Given the experience with regular toilets found in urban areas now, it required more brain storming to make it adhere to all the above norms.
it took us some more time in consultations, some research, a bit of experience, keen social observation to finally come up with a model which we think is safe, convenient, pleasing and most important of all barrier free (call it charge free, free in plain tongue). starting with its naming, ‘She-lounge’ we intended to create a recall value which will not attach this utility to the normal picture of a public toilet which is so deeply imprinted in our psyche. we wanted a new facility which the users may associate with gender specific and pleasant environment. hence the naming not as she-toilet or mahila prasadhan.
So, what is that we came up with to make it a comfortable setting?
a particular she-lounge will consist of following facilities
While the first six points are at the core of the idea of the project, later two form the sweeteners and the last point is for the sustainability part. plainly put, we intend to give the first six as a basic facility sustained by the last point which is the private angle in the PPP, and wifi/FM as additionals.
When we talk of PPP, its worth mentioning that we have had to learn from our previous experiences and also from the ones across the globe. It is now almost accepted that local bodies should not be getting into managing lavatories directly and even if there are any left, they are on the way out. The next type is the one based on PPP. Bhopal like other major cities like Delhi operates public toilets built on PPP in which the Ad revenue cross subsidises the capital cost as well as the O&M. Though just short of a fairytale story on paper, the arrangement has a major lacunae. it misses the onus on giving facility and relies more on Ad generation. hence, one may see large ads on main roads but not the toilet behind it. or rather even if there is one, it is very obscure..and even if one finds the way to it, it is hardly a welcome scene. going by the agreement it makes economic sense to avoid as many footfalls as possible. lesser the footfall, lesser the O&M and hence there goes the concept of public utility for a toss. same is the story when it comes to spending rupees on electricity bills on running the escalators in foot over bridges.
it is not as though this is a ‘it happens only in India’ scenario. a quick search in google about ‘starbucks lockout of 2012’ and issue of public urination in the subways of Newyork will give one an idea as to how the issue of public toilet is evolving or yet to evolve. while the City of Newyork poorly lags in providing its citizens with adequate urinals, starbucks the coffee shop has become synonymous as relieving points for people in urgency. so much so that the employees tired of keeping the lavatories clean instead of brewing coffee, staged a lockout in 2012 which forms an important social event in the history of New York’s flourishing franchise industry. the ‘Open London’ policy of 2009 where businesses were co-opted into opening their restrooms to general public has met with little success. the issue remains the same, why would one trade expensive real estate to build toilets. a dilemma facing all municipal bodies across the world.
Such experiences, and some of our own have led us to emphasise more on facility than on revenue. hence the onus on the overall maintenance of the facility as well as incentivising option in revenue sharing directly proportional to footfall. that is if the private party ensures a footfall above the threshold, it can claim incentive while sharing revenue with the corporation. hence the onus to ensure a regular footfall.
if everything goes as expected, She-lounges should dot the landscape across Bhopal providing the best of the facilities to the ladies in eye length, not forgetting the fact that it is one of the kind of initiative not only in India but globally too.
Though mooted with a positive mindset and much goodwill, the above said norms alone cannot guarantee the success of the model and will definitely require all round efforts . but it can be safely said that it is a risk every local body, government should willingly take to address concerns and issues of a significant half of its population. And yes, it is always safe to start with the fairer sex and justifiably so...simply because they deserve it and no smart city is complete without addressing the basic concerns of its female population.
p.s- while the article is going to print, Bhopal’s concept of ‘She-lounge’ has been awarded as a Smart city initiative in the Elets Smart city conference in Delhi.