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Lollapa-LOO-za: A Toilet Day Festival And Its Host City's Toilet Options

Leif Parsons for NPR

Saturday is World Toilet Day. Its mission is to call attention to the fact that 2.4 billion people do not have access to a clean, safe toilet.

An international consciousness-raising event will take place in Mumbai: a Global Citizen concert headlined by Coldplay and with Jay Z and Demi Lovato among the performers.

And what better place to hold this concert, because Mumbai runs the gamut of toilet options, from the most luxurious to non-existent.

I've lived in Mumbai for eight years and I've done research on the toilet situation across slums, trains, and high-rises for three years, so I believe I can offer some insights.

Public Loos

Dharavi is India's largest slum, with some somewhere between 600,000 and a million inhabitants. People live in single-room shanties and share public loos.

But good luck with finding one. According to the Right to Pee, a collective of 33 NGOs working for sanitation, Dharavi has one public toilet per 1,000 people. Public toilets are usually squat toilets in stalls, segregated for men and women, situated within a small one-story tiled building. Entry is free for men taking a whiz; women must pay two rupees — about 10 cents — which is supposed to go to maintenance.

I've interviewed women in the slum of Sewri, who've told me that sometimes there is water in the tap over the toilet that makes it possible to flush manually, sometimes not, but there is always a noxious smell. Sarita, who works as a home cook in well-to-do households, says that if a dirty toilet in her slum gets clogged, it is boarded shut. So that's one less loo.

Open Defecation

Given the state of public toilets, it is not surprising that open defecation is an alternative. In India, an estimated 37 million people defecate in the open. In Mumbai, the figure is 1.6 million. They defecate in the Arabian Sea along 11 miles of coastline and they squat and defecate on the 289 miles of train tracks, many of which crisscross near Dharavi. In fact, train passengers are accustomed to the sight of naked bottoms lining nearby tracks.

Local suburban trains don't have toilets on board but long distance trains that run through Mumbai also dump on the tracks. Since India is a tropical country, the sun takes care of waste, Sharath Chandrayan, chief public relations officer of Western Railways, told me. But at the station where the trains stop, they do have to hose down the tracks.

From No Frills To Slightly Frilly

The estimate from the 2011 Census of India is that 31.5 percent of Mumbai households have their own bathroom. They're the lucky ones. At the most basic level, this would mean they have either a squat toilet or commode with a flush. I live in an apartment building, built in 1980, that represents the next step. My bathroom looks like the typical American bathroom in every way, minus a bathtub. The apartment also has a separate smaller bathroom with a squat toilet, presumably designed for the household help (because by custom, Indian families do not let their help use the family bathrooms).

New apartments may have a common bathroom on each floor for maids and nannies to use. And sometimes there's a common bathroom by the parking area for chauffeurs, security guards and other workers.

High End

Even in a city that struggles to provide bathrooms for all its citizens, there are bathrooms that are fit for Trump Towers. I once visited a friend of a friend whose bathroom was maybe 8 times as large as mine. Floor-to-ceiling mirrors made the room look even bigger. The toilet with its jet spray and heated seat was discretely sectioned off and surrounded by black-and-gold mosaics. An interior designer may charge $150 to $220 a square foot to design and build such a bathroom. I heard of one that cost $12,000 to outfit and this was without semiprecious stone inlays.

The Future

Mohandas Gandhi once said that "Sanitation is more important than political independence," something our political leadership is still trying to take on board. On Gandhi's birth anniversary, October 2, 2014, Prime Minister Modi launched the Clean India initiative (called "Swachh Bharat") with the goal of ending open defecation by building over six million toilets by 2019. In the state of Maharashtra, where Mumbai is the capital, the target is 629,819 toilets and, so far, a third of them are ready.

And if you're one of the lucky concert-goers who scored tickets to see Coldplay et al, you'll also see what the world of toilets could one day look like in Mumbai and other toilet-deficient societies.

On display are various composting toilets, which could be used by a single family or a small community. In the model from EarthAuger, for example, human poo is mixed with dry material like sawdust, wood ash and rice hulls. Step on a foot pedal and the mixture moves along a tube that can hold the output from about 120 flushes. Then the mixture is collected in a storage container and dried out so it can be used as compost.

And just in case millennials need a reminder, there's a display of toilet paper at the festival with the message, "Swipe Left. But Wipe Right."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chhavi Sachdev