Toilet as a home

Many migrants to Pune, from a range of social backgrounds, work as caretakers of public toilets in the city. While they often face ridicule and abuse because of their jobs, the perk of a free accommodation in an expensive city, even if that accommodation happens to be within the toilet-complex used by hundreds, makes it a viable option for them.

Raj Kumar Singh climbs up through an opening to reach his residence located on the second storey of a toilet block in Chinchwad. (Photo: Atikh Rashid)

Name: Raju Sawant. Address: Sarvajanik Shauchalaya, Tilak Road, Pune-30

This must be the least flattering address in whole of Pune. However, for five member Sawant family, it’s a reality of life. Sawant (52) works as a caretaker at the public toilet and stays in a small room constructed within the lavatory block along with his family – wife and three sons. The family has been staying like this since 2003 when he migrated to Pune from Latur in interior Maharashtra in search of a livelihood.

Sawant is not alone. There are as many as 349 families and individuals in Pune and adjacent Pimpri Chinchwad who have taken up the job to maintain public toilets constructed by municipal corporations of two cities because of the accompanying benefit of free accommodation in the expensive cities.

Those working as resident caretakers for public toilets in Pune and PimpriChinchwad mostly come from eastern and central districts of Uttar Pradesh, north-eastern parts of Bihar as well as from Marathwada and Vidarbha region of Maharashtra.

The model is not unique to Pune. The NGOs which adopt the toilets and then recruit caretakers to look after them, operate on the same model in various cities across the country. Sulabh International, one of the NGOs and biggest among them, has as many as 8500 toilets with residential caretakers across India.

Information obtained from official sources shows that Pune city has a total of 1192 toilet blocks – each block consists of separate urinals and lavatories for men and women – constructed by Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC). Of these, 797 are community toilets meant to be used by slum-dwellers who don’t have a latrine at home and 395 are public toilet located at public places such as roads, parks, transport hubs and market places. Of the total, 294 are maintained by non-governmental organizations (rest maintained by PMC’s own staff) who typically adopt them for a tenure of 30 years. In Pimpri Chinchwad, there are 874 toilet blocks of which 55 are maintained by resident caretakers.

Only formula to success

Arun Mishra at the cash counter at the lavatory in Shivajinagar, Pune. The brown door behind him opens in his residence.

As per experts in the field and those working with NGOs such as Sulabh International, SPARC (society for the promotion of area resource centers), which are involved in construction and maintenance of public toilets in various cities, the only viable option for a public toilet to remain in business successfully in the long run is to make living arrangements for the caretakers in the toilet complex.

Sulabh came up with the model of constructing a cottage for the caretaking team in every toilet it builds in 1970s. This model assures that the team is available for work 24×7, the lavatories are well maintained and, most importantly, it makes recruiting caretakers for toilets much easier due to the offer of free ccommodation.

“We believe that without having a residential caretaker a public toilet can’t succeed. And no caretaker will agree to work at a public toilet in a big city without having accommodation facility,” said Santosh Kumar Singh, Deputy Controller (Admin), Sulabh. “Even though number of users is considerable, many people don’t pay the user fee and hence revenue generated by public toilet is not enough to pay a high enough monthly salary to Sanitation Officer (euphemism for ‘toilet cleaner’) and Sanitation Manager (caretaker) which will enable them to sustain in the big city and make some savings,” said Singh.

Once the caretakers (which can be a group of men or a family), have a place to stay, the biggest expense is taken care of. Now they have to spend only on food and other minor expenses thus allowing them to save a big portion of the monthly earning.

As per Vinod Pathak, who has been working in the field for over 25 years, in many cases families take up the responsibility with one or two members looking after the lavatories while others – wife, sons, brothers or relatives – work elsewhere in the city and earn to supplement the family income. If it’s not a family, it’s a group of related or closely acquainted men some of whom work outside as mechanics, labourers, cooks, helpers taking advantage of the accommodation at the toilet complex.

Molding the caste

In India, employment in sanitation sector is generally perceived to be taken by those who come from castes that are traditionally known to be involved in scavenging such as Mehtar, Bhangi, Chuda and Lal Beg. However, residential caretakers in public toilets in the cities seem to defy this norm as upper caste individuals coming from Bramhin and Kshatriya families are found to be taking up the jobs due to unemployment and lack of opportunities in the city elsewhere for want of education and skills.

Arun (49) works as a sweeper at a toilet maintained by Janseva in Shivajinagar area of Pune. He’s reluctant to reveal his family name – Mishra – which gives away his Bramhin identity. “It’s been ten years since I’m working here. My relatives wouldn’t approve of my working as a sweeper in a toilet but ‘how would they know?’ Unko lagta hai ke pardes mein ja kar kama raha hai. (They only know that I’m earning a living by working in a foreign land). Personally, I don’t feel any inferiority in doing my task. This is public service,” said Arun.

Inside view of Raj Kumar Singh’s residence where he stays with mother, father and grandfather who is visiting the family.

23-year-old Raj Kumar Singh, who is in-charge of a toilet block run by Sulabh in Cinchwad, belongs to Rajput family coming from Vaishali, Bihar. The toilet block has a single 200-square feet room built on the second storey, above the lavatories, an arrangement more agreeable than having the residential quarters right next to the latrines. The residence can be accessed by climbing an iron staircase which stretches to the terrace through a circular opening in the roof. The room – which functions as bedroom as well kitchen, is shared by the family of three – Raj, his father who works as an electrician elsewhere and mother. Recently, his ailing grandfather too has moved in travelling from their hometown for better treatment.

Health – of body and mind

Prolonged exposure to human feces is known to cause a plethora of health issues. These include infectious diseases such as diarrhea, cholera, hepatitis and lung ailments. Santosh Singh of Sulabh, brushes aside the apprehension of residential caretakers or their family members contracting diseases, saying “I have not received any complaint regarding this. People who work in other industries such as construction, brick kilns or plastic product manufacturing where particulate exposure is more, are more susceptible to lung related illnesses. In fact, many times, people quit these jobs and come to us.”

While there has been no study to conclusively link or de-link work in public lavatories with infectious diseases, municipal health officers seem to believe that working with and staying close to human excreta is hazardous for health for the caretakers.

A Medical Officer with PMC, said, “These caretakers, especially women, are at high risk of being nfected with urinary tract infections. There is also an imminent possibility of them contracting bacterial and viral diseases. Also, in our country public toilets are favorite spot to spit, their occupants are susceptible to air-borne droplet infections such as tuberculosis.”
Keeping bodily health aside, having a ‘toilet’ for a home, has its own psychological implications, specially for kids, if not for adults, if the caretaker stays with the family.

Raju Sawant’s wife Sharada with son at the public toilet on Sinhagad Road.

“My sons often complain to me that their friends and classmates ridicule them for staying in a toilet,” said Raju Sawant’s wife Sharada who also blames working and staying at a toilet for her Tuberculosis.. “We have been staying here for last 15 years. All my kids have grown up here. Since we stay like this, miscreants consider us easy target. There are fights every hour of every day, they refuse to pay, abuse us and threaten to throw us out.”

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