Providing public toilets is the responsibility of local governments. Sadly, they remain resource-less
Javed Dar, a salesman at a consumer products company, has to scale the length and breadth of the area he’s assigned. For long hours he moves around from one shop to the other to convince the owners to keep his company’s products on display. One major problem he faces is that he can’t always find a place to relieve himself when nature calls, as they say.
Sometimes the shopkeepers allow him to use their toilets, on other occasions he is simply told to move on. At places where the occupants are least accommodating, Dar is forced to have tea or drink at a restaurant that would allow their facilities to the customers alone; the passersby cannot just get in and avail these. Today, it’s become a way of life for him — he’s scheduled things to suit his bodily requirements. This way, he is saved from social embarrassment.
Dar’s is just one of the many accounts of what common working-class people face on a daily basis, which shows how troublesome the situation gets in the absence of public toilets. The situation is even more difficult for womenfolk, the elderly and the disabled. The labourers, vendors, small-time daily wage earners etc are treated even more badly and are shunned.
Ideally, the local governments are responsible for providing us with basic amenities like shelter and shade, parking lots, bus stops, water hydrants, public toilets and so on, from the taxes we pay. But, unfortunately, in our country, the response is quite poor and public facilities far from satisfactory.
All around the world, November 19 is observed as the World Toilet Day, which is meant to emphasise the need to increase people’s access to public toilets and decent sanitation facilities. In Pakistan, too, statements are issued and media coverage given to the topic but no progress is observed in this regard. The case of a metropolis like Lahore, for instance, is shocking when you consider how the city boasts only 22 public toilets which fall under the domain of the City District Government of Lahore (CDGL), for a population of above 11 million.
To make matters worse, the commercial building bylaws aren’t followed. Marketplaces often flout the rules which require them to maintain toilets for public use. There have been instances where spaces supposed to be allocated for toilets were used to construct shops.
Sarfraz Hussain of Public Facilities Department, CDGL, tells TNS that the department had planned to increase the number of public toilets in the city, but after weighing their options, they went into partnership mode with the Salman Sufi Foundation and facilitated its Saaf Bath project.
“We offered land at busy public places to the Foundation where it has set up movable toilets,” he adds. “The number will be increased in time.”
According to Hussain, other organisations may also come forward — “They shall be duly accommodated, if they meet the conditions and take it as public service and not a profit-making opportunity.”
Makeshift arrangements have proved unworkable. For example, mosque administrators have barred random people from using toilets unless they are there to offer prayers. In times of pandemic, this access is denied to all, and the namazis are asked to perform ablutions at home.
Statistics related to Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) in the country paint an alarming picture and call for concerted efforts to improve the situation. As per a fact sheet shared by WaterAid UK, Pakistan ranks amongst the world’s top 10 countries with lowest access to clean water near to home. Besides, 11.5 percent of our people defecate in the open, 79 million are without decent toilets and 21 million do not have close-to-home access to clean water.
One encouraging thing is that Pakistan is also the sixth best country in the world when it comes to improving access to decent toilets.
Salman Abid, a development sector professional with interest in local government systems, believes it is too idealistic an approach to expect such services in the absence of the third tier government. “Public toilet is a local government issue and cannot be solved unless you empower [the local government] with funds and operational independence.”
He quotes from Section 83 of the Punjab Local Government Act, 2013 (now replaced) which states: “A local government shall provide and maintain in sufficient number and in proper situations public latrines and urinals for the separate use of each sex, and shall cause the same to be kept in proper order and to be regularly and properly cleaned.”
He laments the fact that all this has remained on paper and even the words like “sufficient number” were not explained. “It would’ve been better if a desired population to public toilets ratio had been announced to give some target to the concerned authorities,” he adds.
The point Abid is trying to make is that instead of giving their share to the local governments, the federal government and the provincial government would spend such funds on the likes of roads, bridges, underpasses and highways. “It is never too late, so the government must prioritise this matter which is also in synch with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 to ensure access to water and sanitation for all by 2030.”
Over time, makeshift arrangements have proved unworkable. For example, mosque administrators have barred random people from using toilets unless they were there to offer prayers. In times of the pandemic, this access is denied to all, and the namazis are asked to perform ablution at home.
The common people are also becoming increasingly wary about letting strangers use their private (home) toilets. Cases of theft and robbery have been reported. Typically, a woman pretending to have a restroom emergency was let in only to call in her male accomplices and commit robbery.
Hence, a structured solution is the need of the hour.
* For a population of more than 11 million, Lahore has only 22 public toilets which fall under the domain of the City District Government of Lahore (CDGL).
* According to WaterAid UK, Pakistan ranks amongst the world’s top 10 countries with least access to clean water near to home. Besides, 11.5 percent of our people defecate in the open, 79 million are without decent toilets and 21 million do not have close-to-home access to clean water.
* Public toilet is a local government issue. Section 83 of the Punjab Local Government Act, 2013 (now replaced) states: “A local government shall provide and maintain in sufficient number and in proper situations public latrines and urinals for the separate use of each sex, and shall cause the same to be kept in proper order and to be regularly and properly cleaned.”
The writer is a senior staff reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]