The public bathroom doubles as a safe space and a solution to the city’s sanitation struggles.
Mumbai has a toilet shortage. Only 10,381 public toilets exist to meet the needs of the city’s 12 million people, and for women, the situation is even more grim: only 36 percent of those commodes are reserved specifically for their use.
In Thane, just northwest of the city center, the sanitation advocacy group Agasti is testing out a solution: an all-women’s restroom, situated along a central thoroughfare close to the local bus terminal. Arranged around the base of a tree, the cluster of four private toilets resembles a well-lit, pink-tinged shipping container from the outside. On the inside, it’s clean and calm. In the communal sitting area, women rest on benches and chat under the shade created by overhanging leaves.
The restroom, says Agasti founder Sahej Mantri, serves the dual function of tackling the sanitation access gap and providing a safe space for women in the city, where time on a public street can be a fraught experience. “In our restroom, women can spend time waiting for their next bus, charging their mobile phones, or waiting for someone to pick them up in a cool, comforting environment,” Mantri says.
Mantri says the Agasti toilet, the entrance to which is monitored by a CCTV camera and patrolled by a security guard, aims to provide a reliably sequestered space for women to use—one in which they can also converse and congregate at their leisure.
Mantri says the overall public response to the toilets has been lukewarm, and the objection tends to focus on the design. “We have been told that it looks too fancy, even futuristic,” Mantri says. But he and his team are not deterred. “We take that as a compliment, because it was designed to look fresh even 10 years after construction.”
Agasti’s future-oriented mentality is also reflected in the technology they’ve chosen to use. Biodigesters installed in the toilets release microbes that break down waste without using external energy, and render the water safe to be discharged into nearby storm drains. Contamination of the water supply in India is a substantial public health concern. Around 12 percent of the country’s population defecates in open urban areas, and with minimal infrastructure in place to collect the waste, it flows untreated into the cities’ water networks. In developing countries, diseases linked to unclean water and inadequate sanitation systems result in hundreds of thousands of deaths each year.
However, the same countries where sanitation poses the most substantial health threat are also innovating around the issue. CityLab previously reported on solutions like the Omni Processor in Dakar, Senegal, which converts feces into safe drinking water through a process that also generates its own self-sustaining energy. These shifts away from the “gold standard of sanitation”—the sewer systems running through developed cities—represent not only crucial innovations for still-developing cities, but technologies for all countries to consider as water and energy supplies grow increasingly strapped.
Mantri and Agasti hope to install more such toilets; the only barrier at this point, Mantri says, is funding. The Indian government, through its sanitation campaign Swachh Bharat, prioritizes installing private toilets in people’s homes, and Mantri says he’s struggled with accessing government money to further construction of public toilets. He’s in talks with the local Thane government to develop more toilets within the city, but would like to see Agasti’s work spread throughout the country. “For far too long the perception of India has been linked with poor sanitation,” Mantri says. “Hopefully now people will see that a few of us here are determined to change that.”