By Sanjiv Kataria IANS | 5 months ago

Many occasions last week tugged at my conscience, primarily because of a series of events. Two ladies were planning their shopping itinerary, seated in a McDonald's in south Delhi, till their drifting conversation hit me that the whole expedition was centered on one thing - clean toilets.


The next day I overheard another lady refusing to sip tea or coffee before heading out. Politely, she stated, no fluids, on the days she steps out, lest she should have to use a restroom outside.

Later that evening, I ventured out for a walk in a neighbouring, prize winning park, admiring the immaculate lawns and greenery. The sight of a young woman walker, barely fifty yards ahead of me, stepping off the track to relieve herself embarrassed and shook my standing as a resident of the capital city - of a country touted to be a major power soon.

This huge park acquired a spanking new toilet block in 2010 as a part of the Commonwealth Games largesse. When I used just months later, I nearly fainted, even before reaching it. I know why the jogger chose the shrubs over the never-cleaned toilet block.

What I saw is visible to every other Indian - the ministers, legislators, bureaucrats, the petty officials who run civic bodies. Yet half of India doesn't have access to toilets. According to three of Delhi's five civic bodies that have control over much of the city, in June 2013 there were 5,383 public toilets for 17 million citizens and, of them, only 391 were for women. Their usability wasn't mentioned in the report.

It was 39 years ago that 1975 was declared as the International Women's Year. Since then, March 8 is celebrated as International Women's Day. As we celebrate yet another Day isn't it a pity that provision of clean conveniences for women - a matter of dignity - continues to be brushed under the carpet?

Anecdotes of Indian girls being pulled out from schools on attaining puberty due to the lack of proper toilet facilities are well known. Even the UN's Decade of Women 1976-1985 failed to provide toilets for women in India. More money has been spent by the government on airing advertisements urging women to marry someone who has a toilet at home than on building toilets in public spaces. Last year, BJP leader Narendra Modi even created a slogan - for which he was denounced - "Building toilets ahead of temples".

The absence of enough functional restrooms in public places for women is not only a matter of dignity and healthcare, but also of safety. Despite having three eminent women at the helm of India's political leadership - ruling Congress head Sonia Gandhi, Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj and Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar - for the last five years, little has changed on this score.

The June 19, 2012 issue of Time magazine pointed to the vast health issues that women contend with in absence of public restrooms. "To avoid the need to urinate, they often withhold hydration, a practice resulting in high rates of urinary-tract infections, heat strokes and other health problems," it said.

I am not proposing that clean public toilets become an election issue. We need a 'here and now', solution to the problem that successive governments have not been able to effectively address.

FICCI president Sidharth Birla, estimates that about 8,000 companies in India will fall under the ambit of the CSR provision from April 1. This translates into an estimated Rs. 12,000 crore to Rs 15,000 crore (Rs.120 billion-Rs.150 billion/$2 billion-$2.5 billion) annually.

Here is a thought for Birla's consideration: What if each Indian company builds public toilets as part of their CSR allocation? The provisions of the revised Schedule-VII that covers healthcare, education, gender equality, environmental sustainability and rural development are broad enough for each contributor to focus on building public restrooms.

Mr. Birla, do what it takes to become a Pied Piper, leading a movement that will set Indian women free from defecating in the open. What India needs today is toilets that are built to last and designed to be clean. Indian women have great expectations from industry captains like you this International Women's Day.

(Sanjiv Kataria, a strategic communications and PR counsel. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at Sanjiv.kataria@gmail.com or @sanjivkataria)

(Posted on 07-03-2014)