MUMBAI, India — Men and women here in India’s largest city, a congested, humanity-soaked metropolis of roughly 20 million residents, would seem bound by at least one common misery: far too many people sharing far too few toilets.
But there is a difference — unlike men, women often have to pay to urinate. So for months, social advocates like Minu Gandhi have canvassed the city, arguing that this disparity amounts to blatant discrimination and asking women to start demanding a right most of them had never contemplated: the right to pee.
“We all feel this is a basic civic right,” Gandhi said, “a human right.”
India has long had a sanitation problem. Recent census data found that more than half of Indian households lacked a toilet, a rate that has actually worsened in the past decade despite India’s growing wealth. Yet what is unique about the so-called Right to Pee campaign — whose catchy title was coined by the Mumbai media and which now appears to be on the verge of achieving some of its goals — is the argument that the bathroom in India is governed by a double standard.
Like men, women in villages often must urinate outdoors, in fields. But unlike them, they sometimes endure taunting and even sexual assault. Many rural women relieve themselves in small groups, before dawn, to protect against harassment.
In Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, millions of people depend on public toilets, which are usually in dark, filthy buildings that operate as male-controlled outposts. The municipal government provides 5,993 public toilets for men, compared with only 3,536 for women. Men have an additional 2,466 urinals. (A 2009 study found an even greater imbalance in New Delhi, the national capital, with 1,534 public toilets for men and 132 for women.)
Almost always, a male attendant oversees these toilets, collecting fees. Petty corruption is rampant in India, and public toilets are no exception: Men must pay to use a toilet but can use urinals free (based on the premise that urinals, usually just a wall and a drainage trench, do not need water). But women are regularly charged to urinate, despite regulations saying they should not be.
“Even if you say you are only urinating, they say, ‘How do we know?’ ” said Yagna Parmar, another social activist involved in the campaign. “So they ask for money.”
At the northern rim of the city, inside a slum known as Shivaji Nagar, at least 350,000 people — perhaps twice that many by some estimates — live pressed together beside one of the city’s largest dumps. The exact number of public toilets is unclear but, by one estimate, the ratio is no better than 1 toilet for every 300 people. Women must adapt their daily routines: Many visit the bathroom early in the morning to avoid lines and leering. They avoid drinking much water. And they carry change.
The campaign began last year when a coalition of social advocates gathered from around the state of Maharashtra, which includes Mumbai. Organizers in each city chose different issues, including domestic violence and equal access to water. The Mumbai group considered campaigns on housing, water or sanitation before deciding on the Right to Pee.
Perhaps the months of canvassing and campaigning will pay off. Last week, social advocates met with city officials who told them of new plans to build hundreds of public toilets for women across the city. Some local legislators are now vowing to build toilets for women in every one of their districts.
Nothing is official yet, and promises often do not become reality in Indian politics. But the activists feel momentum is now in their favor.