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Footprints: NOWHERE TO GO

November 28, 2017


CLEAN public washrooms are a rarity in the country. This woman takes her child to one such washroom, a hotbed of germs and disease, for lack of any other place.—Arif Ali / White Star
CLEAN public washrooms are a rarity in the country. This woman takes her child to one such washroom, a hotbed of germs and disease, for lack of any other place.—Arif Ali / White Star

BASHEERAN Bibi spends hours selling toys in a Model Town market, one of the higher socio-economic areas of the city. But when it comes to using a washroom, she is stuck.

“I have to try and control it,” she says. “But when it becomes too much, I must make my way to the Model Town Park, pay Rs20 for the entrance fee and then walk a long way to use the public washrooms there.” She has developed a urinary-tract infection (UTI), she says.

In the Model Town Park, the administration has built some bathrooms for men and women. These are strong concrete structures where privacy is taken seriously. But late in the evening, the mother-of-four tells her youngest son to urinate in one of the beautifully manicured bushes. Caught red-handed, she says that the child had to go, but being accustomed to a lack of public washrooms, she let him go behind the bushes.

In the same location, two different issues crop up: while there is a basic lack of availability of washrooms that are clean or private, especially for women, this lack has also led to the public to find alternatives. While such people as Basheeran end up with UTIs, open human waste causes other diseases to spread. To make matters worse, diseases may be transferred through touch as well, because there is no hand-washing process.

Public toilets are a rare sight in even many of the crowded areas of the city. Sometimes they are not there at all, at other locations they are in a shambles.

At the railway station, men complain that they have serious issues with the toilet facilities here: badly maintained, extremely unhygienic, and sometimes with no running water. Outside the station, four men squat in front of a wall on which is painted: ‘Yahan peshaab karna manaa hay [Do not relieve yourself here]’.

More and more messages have been cropping up over the years on different walls of the city. The tone begins from a simple ban on urinating, to words of stern warning, and ending in perhaps dark sarcasm. Crude as they are, they cannot be ignored, as they highlight one of the city’s biggest issues.

But: “Where else can we go?” asks a truck driver, before walking away.

Bad hygiene, a lack of water and electricity, and flooding are some factors deterring people from using the few toilets available. Even the usable ones do not include everyone. There are no separate washrooms for transgendered people who, like women, find the lack of privacy a huge problem. Women complain that there are few ways to dispose of a sanitary napkin. Aged people, or the disabled, find the old-style latrine a problem.

“With the problems already present, I would be asking too much for a counter to change a baby’s diaper,” says a mother. “But that is a real enough problem too.”

Heritage sites aren’t safe either. The pavements surrounding Badshahi Masjid are in a bad state of repair. These are the haunts of heroin addicts and junkies, and no one is around to stop them from despoiling the area. The pavements are stained with streams of stale urine.

At the same time, using some of the functional toilets means spending Rs5 to Rs10 for government-run ones, while private ones charge Rs10 to Rs15. For most people, this is half their bus fare. And even so, this does not mean the toilet will be clean.

A 2015 Unicef report says that more than 40 million individuals in Pakistan do not approach a latrine. In a city that boasts to have new infrastructure projects ongoing almost all the time, providing basic facilities like this seems to remain on the back burner. The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics claims that 11.1 million people live in Lahore alone. Yet there are only about 10 functioning city government washrooms.

A sanitation NGO, Water Aid, claims that Pakistan is among the 10 nations where urban inhabitants need access to protected and private toilets. It is also the third-biggest nation with regards to open defecation (preceded by India and Indonesia), and the sixth Sustainable Development Goal — ‘clean water and sanitation’ — might not be met too soon. A national hygiene report says that more than 44 per cent of Pakistan’s populace cannot approach safe toilets, while 53pc of the women do not have sanitation with privacy.

Sources within the government’s Housing Urban Development and Public Health Engineering Department say that some work is being done for promoting washroom usage, but the focus of these projects remains on domestic washroom use with an emphasis on rural areas. Otherwise, the government’s initiative is focused on building washrooms in the smaller cities. But no new development can be seen in Lahore.

A few days ago, PTI legislator Malik Taimoor Masood presented a resolution to the Punjab Assembly, demanding that the government build toilets along roads and launch a massive awareness campaign about the use of toilets.

“Sadly, at the end of the day, it is some private company that will end up making more washrooms for people and then also charging a lot,” says an observer.

Published in Dawn, November 28th, 2017