Jocalyn Clark: Does it pay to pee? An Indian city thinks so

Jocalyn_Clark1When in public, where to pee? This is a universal challenge with a surprising array of local solutions.

Last month Tahmima Anam, in her characteristically delightful New York Times column, revealed that Dhaka, Bangladesh, a city of over 15 million, has just five functional public toilets. The abundance of outdoor labourers and the endless traffic mean a lot of people spend a lot of time with nowhere to go.

In an attempt to stop men from urinating at roadsides, over ditches, and against walls, Anam writes that the government’s Ministry of Religious Affairs has begun covering walls with the sacred Arabic script; the idea being that men will not pee in sites they believe to be holy (never mind that few Bangladeshis understand Arabic, she says). The government’s campaign has been widely criticised—not least because it does nothing to increase women’s access to sanitation facilities—and many would simply like them to spend the money on public toilets.

Over in India, whose open defecation problem vastly dwarfs Bangladesh’s, the government is also determined to clean up its act. The Indian prime minster Modi has pledged to provide total sanitation to the country by 2019. In the meantime, Ahmedabad, a city of six million in the western Indian state of Gujarat, has decided to pay residents one rupee each time they use a public toilet in an attempt to prevent urinating and defecating out in the open, which pollutes the environment and spreads disease. Many Indians believe toilets to be unhygienic and prefer to relieve themselves in fields and streets—the open defecation rate in the population is a staggering 50%.

The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation is going to trial the financial incentive scheme at 67 public facilities where workers will give a rupee coin to each user. If the trial is successful the incentive programme will be scaled across the municipality. They also plan to impose fines on those who publicly urinate or defecate (in Bangladesh, this enforcement on urination has never succeeded). Besides the drive for cleanliness, the Indian initiative has a financial aim: “The whole motive of the scheme is to popularize the public toilet,” said a city official in the Times of India. “We plan to generate revenue through advertising.”

It’s an interesting contrast to the situation in richer countries where the need to go is shared, but the commercial aspect is reversed. More and more accessible toilets that require payment are popping up. According to Wikipedia, they are less common in America where lobbying by the plumbing industry and women’s rights advocates have stemmed their development. They seem more common in cities with public transport systems, where heavy traffic through bus, train, and metro stations creates a market of people willing to pay for clean, maintained facilities. And in the UK they literally pop up—in 2002, pop-up toilets (urinals, actually) were introduced that remain hidden underground during the daytime and telescope into existence at night.

Jocalyn Clark (@jocalynclark) is executive editor at icddr,b, a global health research organisation in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She was a senior editor at PLOS Medicine and assistant editor at The BMJ.

Competing interests: The author has no further interests to declare.