Wednesday, August 27, 2008

toilet mafia

There is a sanitation officer, the residents of Bawana Resettlement Colony tell me, who makes Rs 3000 a day. ‘Makes’ is just a nice way of putting it. What they mean, of course, is illegal earning. The police are not far behind, with a daily intake of Rs 15,000. All thanks to the toilet mafia. I know, you are wondering: What?

Some background: When the slum dwellers of the Yamuna Pushta were moved to Bawana – “resettled” – the government told those who could supply ID cards that would be allotted plots of land. They paid for them – Rs 7000 or Rs 5000 – depending on the size. Empty plots, which, depending on the savings of the slum dwellers, they have either built up into brick houses or jhuggis. From illegal colonies to actually owning land is a great leap for many, but before you wax eloquent about how we are serving the common man, wait. Sewage lines do not connect the plots of land, so houses cannot have individual bathrooms. So, an entire block has to share a bathroom complex or two. That’s 4000 families, roughly 28,000 people. And so whenever any of them want to use the bathroom, have a bath, wash their clothes – they have to brave the heat, the cold, the day, the night, lines, men, women, children, to have a little personal space. But it doesn’t end there.

From 2004 to 2006, Sulabh was handling the toilet complex. The lavatory cost Re 1, and to bathe/wash clothes cost Rs 5. That’s a lot of money for a family of six or seven, as they often are in the Resettlement Colony. In 2006, the MCD took over, and made use of the toilets free. But the more things changed, the more they remained the same. The Sulabh workers stayed on, taking money from residents who did not know the rules had changed. And so the daily struggle continued. If anyone was unable to pay, but needed to use the bathroom, they were manhandled. Poverty was a reason the bathrooms were made free. But practically, it seems, it did not serve the interest of the authorities to tell them. And from their daily collections – remember that the strength of the colony is about one lakh people strong – the sanitation officer took a cut, the police took theirs, the men who guarded the toilets, and some money trickled down to the local politicians office I was told. And therein lies the toilet mafia.

But the story hardly ends there. A few NGOs – Action Aid, Par Darshita -- along with some residents who work with them figured out this game. After consulting a lawyer, they decided that the best weapon against this mafia was to tell everyone the truth. A pamphlet was prepared, ‘nukkad nakat’ or street plays with the message, and a rally called on June 30th to announce this to the community. The night before, in true Hindi movie style, members of the mafia turned up at the NGO office and threatened members if they proceeded. But they did, the rally was held, the message spread, and sure enough, it ended with the mafia coming in and disrupting everything.

I was there the day of the rally, and saw quite a few fights over bathroom usage. It should be surprising that a toilet mafia exists, but its not. Who is responsible for the mess in Bawana? I told a bunch of senior bureaucrats this story over dinner, and most of them simply shrugged and told me that the MCD has a very bad rep. But what does that mean, exactly? That because the MCD is known to be corrupt, we cannot expect it, or rather, we will not expect it to function? This is not just a problem for the residents of Bawana. Not just for the MCD. It is a health hazard to have areas around the house and colony be used like open bathrooms, which they invariably are, for the lack of another option. Isn’t it an environmental matter as well? And can the Government of Delhi wash its hands off the problem by squarely blaming the MCD?

The colony might be able to recapture its bathrooms; it might not. All I know is that waiting for a bathroom can be unbearable sometimes.

Now imagine if you didn’t have one at all.