Indira canteen staff will welcome the public—if their toilets work. Experts and citizens say existing public toilets will serve the need if they are maintained.
We’ve all done it—popped into a coffee shop’s toilet and quickly, guiltily left without patronizing it. But, what we’ve done is perfectly legal. Suralkar Vikas Kishore, Special Commissioner of Health, Bruaht Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) said, “hotel and restaurant owners must provide free drinking water and allow the public to use the restrooms even if they are not their customers. This has always been the rule.” However, he added that since hotels and restaurants were private properties, they could not be forced to open their washrooms to the public.
Recent news reports suggested that BBMP will issue guidelines to Indira Canteens and hoteliers and restaurant owners to open their washrooms to the public.
Staff washrooms of Indira Canteens
Staff at Indira Canteens across the city say that they have not received any notification from the BBMP intimating them to open their staff washrooms to the public. However, even if they did, they say, that the washrooms remain inaccessible even to them.
Umashankar, a server at the Indira Canteen in Kengeri said, “We do not have any problem in opening the staff washrooms for the public. However, right now, the washrooms are not accessible even to the staff.” He was referring to the lack of water supply for the washrooms. “We have to fetch water from nearby shops or taps even for our staff to use these washrooms,” he said.
Vidyanand, at the Indira Canteen in Majestic had the same to say. “We no longer use these washrooms and have locked them up because of a blockage in the sewage line. Using these washrooms would lead to the sewage coming up the drains, making it impossible for people to eat amidst the waste and stink,” he said. However, he said that they were willing to open up the washrooms for the public once the problem was fixed. “In the meantime, our staff is using the public toilet across the street,” he added.
They also pointed out that the canteens did not have the required amenities and staff to maintain the washrooms if they opened them to the public. M. Athur, a BBMP Marshal present at the Indira Canteen in Cubbonpete said that the washroom facility at the canteen was only for the staff and the public could use the public toilet beside the canteen. “If we permit the public to use these washrooms, they would leave it dirty. Moreover, we do not have any staff to look after the maintenance of these washrooms, and the lack of water supply adds to the problems,” he said. He added that the situation was similar across most Indira Canteens in the city.
Triveni, a representative of the Bruhat Bangalore Hotel Association said that while they did not receive any official intimation from the BBMP to permit the public to use the washrooms of the hotels and restaurants in the city, they already do so. “Hoteliers and restaurant owners do not usually keep a check on who enters their premises, especially during rush hours. However, free drinking water and washroom facilities in the restaurants have always been available to the public,” she said.
Sarfaraz, a staff at the Empire Hotel in Church Street said, “We do allow the public to use our washrooms even if they are not our guests. Free drinking water is also provided to anyone who asks for it.” Shashikala, a staff at the Paragon restaurant in Church Street also said the same. Vanitha N., a staff at the KFC’s Majestic branch also said that their washrooms were open to the public even if they were not customers.
Chaitanya, a working professional, said, “I am prone to developing allergies, so I do not use public toilets. Unless it is an emergency, I wait till I reach home to use the washroom.” She added that she had previously used washroom facilities of hotels and restaurants despite her not being a customer. “I faced no issues in accessing those washrooms. The staff was extremely considerate,” she added.
City to get ‘She toilets’
Bheemesh, Executive Engineer, Solid Waste Management Department (SWM), BBMP said that the plan is to only construct new She toilets in the city and not e-toilets, contrary to the information being circulated. These toilets would be exclusive for women and can be accessed free of cost. “Bangalore currently has no She toilets. The ‘She toilets’ would include amenities for women such as breastfeeding rooms and sanitary napkin vending machines,” he said.
He said that the new She toilets will be installed in the busy areas of the city including markets and transit hubs. “The tender for 100 new She toilets has not yet been called keeping the upcoming election in mind. Once the election is over, we will finalise the tender process,” he said. He added that new public toilets would be constructed for transgender persons and disabled-friendly infrastructure would be installed in the existing public toilets.
Condition of the existing toilets
The public toilet that Vidyanand, staff at Majestic’s Indira Canteen referred to was a toilet under the brand Nirmala Bangalore. This toilet facility had running water and was comparatively hygienic if one could ignore the holes some have burnt into the plastic washroom doors, probably with cigarettes. Although the toilet did not have mugs or lighting, users could pay via Unified Payments Interface (UPI).
The condition of the Sulabh Shauchalay under the South Western Railway at KSR railway station was not much different. The washrooms had leaky pipes, broken washbasins, and no lighting. While one had to pay the user fee in cash, the staff overcharged female users. The signboard mentioned that the usage of the urinal was free and that Rs. 5 would be charged for the use of the toilet and Rs. 10 for taking a bath. However, the staff charged female users Rs. 10 and male users Rs. 5.
One does not have to go far. The e-toilet and public washroom within the BBMP premise itself is in deplorable condition. While the e-toilet is not operational, a plastic container has replaced buckets and mugs in the public toilet.
Merina, a college student, said that she does not prefer using the public washroom in the city unless it is an emergency. “The washrooms are not maintained in hygienic conditions. This deters me from using them,” she said.
Krishna, who runs a bookstall near the Sir M. Visvesvaraya Metro Station, said that he often uses the public toilets as his bookstall remains open from morning till night. “While the hygiene of these washrooms is not up to the mark, it is manageable. However, lately, the staff at these facilities have started to charge Rs. 3 for using the urinal despite it being free,” he said.
A 2022 study titled ‘Valuing Toilets: Towards Improved Access and Use of Toilets in Karnataka’ pointed out that 19.5 percent of households in Urban Karnataka depended on shared or pay-and-use public toilets. However, people were not satisfied with the public toilets due to poor maintenance, lack of hygiene, water scarcity, and lack of safety, especially for women.
A 2021 survey conducted by Janaagraha revealed that Bangalore had one public toilet for around 25,000 people which is well below the Swachh Bharath Mission guideline. During the survey, many toilets were found to be unusable due to overflowing garbage, lack of clean floors, and proper lighting. The same can be said for the e-toilets in the city. Of the 229 e-toilets in the city, only 60 are in working condition, according to BBMP officials.
Gowthamghosh B., Assistant Professor, Indian Institute of Health Management Research (IIHMR) applauded the decision to install new public toilets in the city. “According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), around 11 percent of urban households use shared toilets, so such a move would benefit them,” he said. He added that while this would help the commuters, it should be ensured that these new washrooms are installed in crowded areas such as markets, transit hubs, and pilgrim sites.
“Installing the toilets is not enough, it needs to be maintained regularly. Authorities must ensure that the hygiene conditions of these toilets meet the Swachh Bharath Mission standards and that they are cleaned and maintained regularly,” he said. It is not just toilet seats that carry germs—bacteria on door knobs and taps can equally contribute to diseases. Thus, extra caution must be exercised when it comes to the cleanliness of washrooms, especially in places that serve food such as Indira Canteens or hotels and restaurants, he added. “Unhygienic washrooms might even lead to gastrointestinal issues. Hence, a system must be in place to ensure the hygiene standards of the public toilets,” he said. It is also important that these washrooms are accessible to all including pregnant women, children, and the disabled, he added.
Prof. M.N. Sreehari, Advisor to the Government of Karnataka for Traffic, Transportation, and Infrastructure said that while upgrading the public toilet facility in the city is a good move, the focus should be on maintaining the existing facilities. “There is no point in constructing new public toilet facilities when the corporation has repeatedly failed to maintain the existing ones,” he said. More washrooms are not the solution. The authorities should look for practical solutions to problems, he added.