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The case for and against public toilets


It was a rite of passage for anyone living in Mumbai. Saunter up to the super luxury Taj Palace hotel in Colaba, use the toilets and leave. The hotel generally turned a blind eye, but the attacks of 26/11/2008 changed this. The toilets are still open to visitors, but security concerns constrain casual entries. The South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) wants to turn all commercial establishments into versions of what the Taj once was. If you need to use the loo you can just enter any hotel or restaurant and request access. It won’t be entirely free though, since the place can levy a fee of Rs5. This gesture of throwing open toilets has been met mostly with confusion. There was criticism of a quick-fix solution which allowed authorities to side-step their responsibility to provide public toilets.

There was appreciation too from women who always suffer deeply from inadequate toilet facilities. But there was scepticism about whether order would be enforced and establishments comply. Establishments seem unnerved at what it might entail – will absolutely anyone have to be allowed in? Riyaaz Amlani, president of the National Restaurant Association of India said the order was fine as long as it: “does not violate the restaurant’s right of admission and does not pose a security threat” – which suggests most restaurants will conclude that it does just that, and ban free entry on that basis.

Perhaps the firmest, most unexpected view came from Tim Worstall, a British based blogger on economics and senior fellow at the Adam Smith Institute, bastion of free-market and unencumbered capitalist thinking. Despite the superficially practical appeal of the measure he fumed, “this tramples right over one of those core things which makes an economy work in the first place – private property rights.” Today your toilet, he said, but tomorrow the government could take over your spare room.

This jump from restrooms to revolutionary redistribution might seem extreme, but co-opting private toilets for public services is a tactic that has a complex history and consequences. Far from being the preserve of collectivist paradises in Cuba or China, it was pioneered by several cities in the USA. In New York city (NYC), for example, restaurants with 20 or more seats, established after 1977 (when the rule came into effect) are required to have toilets which can be accessed by the general public.

This would seem to be the inspiration behind the SDMC’s decision, but in the history of public toilets this American approach is an aberration. Public toilets, whether free or for pay, are usually either provided by the local government, or subcontracted out to a service organisation like India’s Sulabh Shauchalaya or provided as part of the facilities for other public services like transport or libraries.

Due to their embarrassing nature, toilets tend to be neglected in histories, but based on structures it seems that public toilets started to be installed widely in the Roman Empire in the second century AD.

One tradition links them to the earlier reign of the Emperor Vespasian (69-79 CE) who imposed a tax on urine collection that was a precursor to pay toilets. When pay toilets were created in 18th century Europe they were called vespasiennes in French and vespasianos in Italian.

This 18th century effort was a response to the rapid urbanisation following the Industrial Revolution. With so many people living in close conditions it became harder for civic leaders to ignore the needs of public sanitation. Increasing awareness of the links between health and poor sanitation forced cities like Paris and London to undergo a radical transformation of sewage systems and the creation of toilets.

This was also the era of big public exhibitions intended to show off the achievements of the Industrial Revolution. The most famous was London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 and this was one of the first to be built with public toilets attached. As Barbara Penner notes in a study of the Victorian public toilet “at the exhibition’s close, they were reported to have been used 827,820 times and, at a penny charge per use raised 2,441 pounds, fifteen shillings, and nine pennies.”

This was powerful evidence that public toilets could be a paying proposition and cities started installing them. They were particularly important in the USA where local authorities were always far more reluctant to spend on public infrastructure than in more authoritarian run European cities. Over the next century innovators came up with varieties of pay toilets, which by the 1960s had generally culminated in toilets with coin-operated locks, many run by the Nik-o-Lok Company based in Indianapolis.

But that is when this textbook example of capitalist enterprise ran into another American tradition of individualism and embrace of freedom. In 1968 two young brothers, Ira and Michael Gessel, had an uncomfortable drive down a Pennsylvania highway when they found themselves without the coins needed to operate all the pay toilets on the route. Furious at this restriction (and unwilling to break the law by stopping on the side of the road) they decided to fight to end the tyranny of toilet tolls.

Of all the many radical organisations of the 1960s the Committee to End Pay Toilets in America (CEPTIA) may be one least known yet most influential. Started with two friends, at least partly as a joke, CEPTIA soon started having surprising success. Toilets were a magnet for media interest, which CEPTIA played along with by creating a logo of fist rising from a toilet bowl, an anthem and a newsletter called the Free Toilet Paper. Americans, they said, had a right to pee free.

Unlike many other 1960s movements this was one with really wide appeal. Many people had suffered as the Gessels had and Nik-o-Lok made a suitably faceless, monopolistic opponent (European pay toilets usually had attendants, who gave them a more sympathetic identity). When it fought back it didn’t help itself by arguing that pay toilets “discourage drug addicts, homosexuals, muggers and just plain hippies from haunting public restrooms.”

This tin-deaf response was easily countered by CEPTIA which pointed out that the real victims were women since urinals for men were usually free, but sit-down toilets were not. CEPTIA also pointed out that the locks were actually encouragements to commit crimes, by blocking the mechanism. Politicians found that opposing pay-toilets was a neat, high visibility way of appearing to stand up for their voters.

Starting in Chicago, city after city and state after state starting blocking pay toilets. CEPTIA was soon able to claim such success that it could disband (its founders had also graduated from college and needed to get on with their lives). In 1970 it was estimated that the USA had 50,000 pay toilets; by 1980 there were just a fraction of that number. Yet this was not complemented by any upsurge in public spending on toilets.

What enabled the USA to survive was the spread of fast food franchises like McDonald’s. These were willing to offer toilets in the reasonable hope that a fair amount of users would also buy their food. The problem was this didn’t work in cities like NYC where fast food franchises weren’t as common, at least compared to the need for toilets. This seems to have been the reason for the 1977 rule requiring all establishments to open their toilets for public use.

But as anyone with experience of NYC knows, the actual experience is not ideal. Restaurants find ways to discourage visitors who only want to use the facilities: making them feel out of place or forcing them to wait till the key if found, or informing them that the facilities are for employees only, which doesn’t require public access. Toilets can often by mysteriously out of order and people who really need them aren’t usually in a position to waste time arguing or demanding their rights.

The real toll is felt not by visitors to the city, for whom toilet problems are just a passing annoyance, but by the poorer people who actually live and work in the city. In Laura Noren’s bitterly felt paper titled ‘Only Dogs Are Free to Pee’, in an illuminating anthology on toilets which she has co-edited with Harvey Molotch, she chronicles how taxi-drivers suffer from the lack of public toilets.

Unable to find parking spaces to leave cabs while they negotiate with establishments, and threatened with heavy fines for public urination, they either avoid doing it for as long as possible, risking health problems, or covertly use bottles, which then have to be discreetly disposed of. One consequences, she notes, is that few women become taxi-drivers, constrained as always by the lack of public toilets.

This is a dynamic that can be seen working out in large Indian cities as well. Public urination is, of course, still common here, but it is being constrained by initiatives like Swach Bharat – yet without easy provision of alternatives. More toilets are needed, and in India at least there are organisations like Sulabh to run them, but as neighbourhoods go more upmarket and land becomes more expensive, space for toilets is getting harder to find.

In Mumbai, for example, a running battle is being fought over a toilet block that has come up in Bandra Bandstand area. Elite residents, like the actress Waheeda Rahman and Salim Khan, father of Salman Khan, who lives close by, have been battling to have it moved or removed. Nobody wants public toilets close by, but don’t seem to consider what the alternative might be.

And by failing to plan for proper, adequate and financially viable services – which CEPTIA, in its enthusiasm for free facilities failed to consider – we are left reaching for stop-gap solutions like the SMDC’s co-option of private toilets, which will always be both inadequate and intrusive. As the Victorians realised, a modern city needs proper, public facilities to answer such a fundamental need.

Source:  Economic Times

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