In Pune, refurbished buses offer something that many local women need: a clean, safe place to use the restroom away from home.
When women are out in public in Indian cities, they struggle to find somewhere clean and safe to go to the bathroom. Public toilets are scarce, often dirty, and mostly for men. “Holding it in” is a constant annoyance and a health-and-safety problem for women in India—especially if they are menstruating or pregnant. A lack of adequate toilet facilities even causes some girls to drop out of school.
In the 4-million-person city of Pune in western India, Ulka Sadalkar and Rajeev Kher, who together run a company that supplies portable toilets to businesses, converted an old municipal bus into a mobile public restroom for women in 2016. Sadalkar said the idea was born after the two entrepreneurs held a brainstorming session with Pune’s municipal commissioner, Kunal Kumar. Their company was already providing portable toilets for migrant workers at construction sites and to event-management companies. Kumar “suggested that we take inspiration from a similar model in San Francisco that was converting old buses into restrooms for the homeless,” as Sadalkar recalled.
Over the next year, the government of Pune offered 12 decommissioned buses to be turned into women’s restrooms and stationed near major bus stops, recreational areas, and community centers.
Named Ti (meaning “her” in the local Marathi language), the fleet of WiFi-enabled buses mostly runs on solar power. For a fee of 5 rupees (7 cents), users get access to a shower, a diaper-changing station, sanitary pads, drinking water, and space for breastfeeding. A TV plays informational videos on menstruation issues, treating urinary tract infections, and self-examination for breast cancer. Each bus has a café at the back, a full-time attendant, and an emergency button connected to an alarm outside, in case the user feels unsafe. The buses can connect to sewer lines; they also have holding tanks for waste, before it is taken to a sewage-treatment facility.
“The idea is to give women what is theirs: safety and dignity. We do not have fancy marble floors, but the toilets we are building are clean and of good quality,” Sadalkar said. “In fact, it took us months to convince people here that public toilets can also be clean and safe to use, against the conventional notion in India.”
On some days, 300 women might visit a bus, although the average is between 100 and 150. “Our aim initially was to build toilets for mostly lower or middle-income groups, but the gap between the demand and the supply must be so huge that women from all classes are using them,” Sadalkar noted.
Currently, the program is supported by the local government and corporate social-responsibility funds pooled from several companies. It costs about 1 million rupees ($14,000) to refurbish one bus, according to Sadalkar. She and Kher are testing revenue models; the cafés could raise money for operations, as could advertising. “Our long-term vision is to make the buses an information hub on health, and develop a channel with the government through which information on epidemic alerts—let’s say malaria and dengue—can be effortlessly passed on to people,” said Sadalkar.
Sadalkar remembered a conversation with one visitor, a security guard working in a nearby building, who said the bus made her hopeful for her daughter’s future. “She said that she would love for her daughter to get educated and join the workforce someday—she will not work at places without clean and functional toilets,” Sadalkar said. “I was overwhelmed.”