When you live on the street certain basic necessities that most of us take for granted, become major problems, such as getting clean, fresh drinking water, inexpensive and simple medicines and inoculations for children, keeping fresh meat from turning rancid in the heat.

Or, going to the lavatory.

In rural India, people still go before dawn into the fields. In too many slums adults and children squat over open ditches that eventually drain into groundwater. But on the pavement in Byculla, there are no open sewers or ditches.

So, where does a pavement dweller go? Where, for that matter of fact, would you or I go if we suddenly felt the urge?

Of course, I hadn't ever really bothered to think much about this. It's always easier for men. But my wife Martine evidently had. It was New Year's Day and very, very hot. Maybe Winter was already over? Winter in Mumbai lasts all of two or three weeks, maybe a day or two more. Often less. Which reminds me of the joke Mark Twain once wrote about Calcutta: How do you tell the difference between summer and winter in Calcutta? Answer: they change the door handles in summer so they won't melt. Well, that's about the only difference in Mumbai between winter and summer.

Martine came back with a headache from taking too many photos in too much sun. But before she conked out she gave me one piece of advice: "If you're free tomorrow get down to P D'Melo Road before it's too late! Ask to go with Samina. You're in for a big surprise!" And with that she switched off and went fast asleep.

So, the next morning, I went round the office in Byculla and hitched a ride with Shekhar and Samina downtown to P D'Melo Road. I had no idea what it was all about, but they seemed to be expecting me. So I clambered aboard.

Rush hour downtown is not an experience I'd like to repeat in a car, much less on a motorcycle. Until very recently, lead-free gasoline was a foreign concept throughout India. And if you happen to pull alongside a bus or truck at the lights, roll up your window as fast as you can when the lights change and the bus or truck starts to accelerate. Your face or kurta literally gets dusted in a blast of soot.

Now, Mumbai's always been a great natural harbor. Think of Mumbai as Manhattan, almost an island, long and narrow. On the Brooklyn side are the docks. That's where the analogy breaks down, for now. Because there is no Brooklyn. The inner bay is much wider than New York. At the top of the bay a new Bombay is rising. But connections to the island city are not very good. So, for now, the Island remains the gateway for most of India's exports and imports. Its railways fan out north, south and east.

The inner shore of Bombay island is basically docks, hidden from the public gaze by high stone walls. And behind those walls runs PD'Melo Road, docks on one side, hundreds of pavement dwellings on the other. We turn left in front of Victoria Terminus, down the road, then left again into P.D'Melo Road, and come to a halt next to a small building site, and tumble out. Fast asleep in the shade are two street kids. Samina kicks them awake and upright with her bare feet, and starts a characteristic Samina bellow:

"Whatd'ya mean? You just got here! I told you to get everything ready, water, cement, everything!

Oh boys!" [Samina is the mother of three daughters, no sons] "I give up! Doesn't matter how many times I tell you! You're just too thick to understand. Get a move on!"

And then work slowly gets underway for the day. Yesterday's dried-up cement has to be knocked out of today's buckets. Sanjay - one of the street kids, starts shoveling sand. Samina cleans cement off the bottom of a bricklayer's trowel. I still have no idea what they're building. So Shekhar takes me inside a grey one-story structure set against the retaining wall of a hospital, and the penny drops! Inside, there's no electricity, so all I can make out are cinder block dividing walls. Shekhar rattles on anyway, ignorant of my total lack of comprehension:

"These are the toilets, but only for the men. Two toilets for men, and two toilets for women. In the center, where you're standing, a tank of fresh water. The plastic reservoir is on the roof."

All makes sense now. These are indeed toilets. Four toilets. The first-ever public toilets just for pavement dwellers. Right here opposite the docks on noisy P D'Melo Road.

"Who supplies the water?" I ask

"The city. Municipal water." Shekhar replies.

And what's more, the City is putting up the money! Of course, there's a little problem of logic here. With one hand the city demolishes the huts of the pavement dwellers. With the other it funds them to build permanent public toilets.

Now, there are lots of so-called public toilets, in Bombay and other Indian cities. The best-known are the Sulabh toilets that turn human waste into fertiliser. But they're expensive to build. 40,000 Rupees a toilet. Each toilet here costs just 4,000 Rupees. Why the difference? That's simple. Because the pavement dwellers put in the sweat equity themselves. And came up with the basic design themselves. A couple of years back, the Mahila Milan members from P.D'Melo Road got together with the Byculla lot and spent many, many afternoons talking about what they wanted and why.

They then got Makhrand the architect to translate those ideas into official blueprints. They submitted them to Mr. Pai, the City Engineer. And, surprise, surprise, they were given the funds to show what they could do. Opposite Crawford Market.

Pai, who has since retired, simply said "Why not?" when asked for approval. As simple as that!

Samina's in a bad mood. One of the wooden frames for the ceiling slabs - they call them ladis - is bent.

She tells Sanjay and Vijay to shape up, or else - and Samina has a vivid imagination:

"Or else, insects will breed inside your mouths!"

Vijay shovels the concrete into the mold. It's a three foot square wooden frame, held off the ground on four bricks. Stretched loosely across the frame, with plenty of give in it, is a piece of thick muslin. Sanjay fills the muslin with wet, heavy cement. It sags till the muslin is bulging.

Samina smoothes the surface flat, wipes off the excess with a flat board. It will take a day to harden and another day to lift on to the steel crossbeams the boys hoisted yesterday. Simple. Something the women of Mahila Milan are justly proud of. I'm told the original design was Meera Ali's idea, up at the Mahila Milan branch in Goregaon.

No mechanical flush. No water pressure to go wrong. Just a big tank of fresh water. You take your hand-bucket and flush after you go. Uses less than half the water of a normal flush toilet. The plan is to charge everyone 25 Paise a visit and use the money to pay for its maintenance by some of the street kids, who will sleep on the flat roof. There are a couple of cubicles where the women can wash themselves in private, and another space to wash clothes. And a deep trench for little kids to squat over. That hooks up to the big peoples' sewer. And that's the only fly in the ointment. The sewer connection.

The city will do it. But when nobody knows. The nearest sewer line is 200 yards back down the road. It will cost a fortune because this road surface is poured concrete designed to withstand the constant pounding of the heavy trucks that service the docks. Tata Electric, who supply the city with its power, have their cables deep underground, complete with sensors that shut down the whole grid if disturbed.

As Martine discovered. P.D'Melo Road is very hot. I wander off to watch a man washing down tourist coaches. Only to be accosted by one of those delightful characters that sum up India, inquisitive, highly literate and always out of the blue.

"Your name, good sir? Name given. "And these are for what purpose?"

Pointing to my microphones. And then, curiosity satisfied, off he wanders, singing and muttering, probably about my stiff upper lip.


Next day, Samina, Shehnaz, Laxmi and the rest of the women were busy applying henna to Martine's hair. So I popped Laxmi what to me seemed an obvious question:

"If you're building a toilet for the pavement dwellers on PD'Melo Road, why don't you build one for yourselves, right here in Byculla?"

I'd really pressed Laxmi's hot button!

"Of course, we want proper toilets! But we don't want to stay here! If we build a toilet over here next thing they'll be saying is Now, Put tap here! The minute you put a tap here, we don't want to move. We don't want to stay on this pavement. We want to move out of here as soon as possible. So....Big Deal! If we've suffered all these difficulties for so long we can suffer it a little while longer, until we move! "

By now I really was curious. Where do the women go? I realised it had never really crossed my mind. I'd just assumed. The one person who would give me a no-holds-barred answer was Rehmat. So I walked down Apna Jhopadpatti to Hut #79.

" Do you go in somebody's house? Or are there public toilets nearby?"

" In my house we don't go to somebody else's house. And we certainly don't squat by the roadside! Down the next street there's a municipal toilet. They charge men one Rupee. Women fifty Paise. They aren't very clean. But compared to some of the other public toilets they're OK."Now, many of Bombay's public toilets are a disgrace. But they're not run by the users. They've been turned over to Sandaswallahs. Sometimes, the Sandaswallah collects the money and then lends it out on short-term loan and at exorbitant interest. In other words, he doubles as a moneylender. So, an unscrupulous Sandaswallah could make a ton of money out of the need to go.

As it is, someone is making money. Just add up the numbers. In Rehmat's family there are four adults and six children, including her parents and assorted children and grandchildren. That costs Rehmat at least five Rupees a day. And that's going just once a day. The kids have to pay the same rate as women, and if kids need to go twice, or have diarrhea, the outlay can double or treble. No sweat. Loose bowels, even regular ones, can become a major strain on the budget. We once did some rough calculations, and figured regular shitting would cost a family over two hundred Rupees a month, about ten percent of the average household income.

So, if you or I were designing low income housing to rehouse pavement dwellers it would seem to make a whole lot of sense if every house or apartment had its own toilet. It would save them lots of money, and cut down on disease. Well, it would, wouldn't it?


A few weeks later, I went to Dharavi, Asia's biggest slum, but a wonderfully vibrant slum that lies at the top of Mumbai Island. Most of it is reclaimed land, and thereby hangs an interesting digression. Who owns it? Until it was filled it was often underwater, swept by the tides coming up Mahim Creek. Then private industrialists built tanneries on the little pockets of dry land. Thay way they could get rid of the noxious and nasty chemicals they use to separate animal fat from their skins. So they do own the land? Or is the state and its successors? Because the state has jurisdiction over territorial waters. A question not without financial implications because there is only a finite amount of land in Mumbai and Dharavi could be worth a king's ransom. Then again, who owns it could determine who pays for its cleanup!

That morning, I was visiting low-income apartments built with government money to resettle some of Dharavi's half million residents. By mistake I wandered into the 15 by 12 room where Kusum Haripatel, Shobha Balgro and fourteen others live. I happened to need to go to the toilet, but Kusum is cleaning it with her jharoo or hand-broom. An obvious time for an equally obvious question:

"Do you like having it inside your house?"

Wrong answer!

" I would prefer to have it outside!"

Now why would Kusum not want a toilet inside her house?

" Because, you know, then the living space is reduced. And the whole room stinks because of the toilet inside. So I would prefer if it's outside."

Then, Kusum turns on the water tap inside the toilet. An encouraging stream slows, almost before it's started, to a stutter and then peters out completely. Obviously the water pressure is rather low! Kusum explains they only get water for half an hour in the morning. So they have to fill up every conceivable kind of bucket and store it twenty four hours. Since Kusum's apartment is on the ground floor, this is pretty damming for anyone with a toilet on the fifth floor. A toilet that has no water for the flush isn't much use. But Kusum isn't finished counting the ways against toilets inside the home.

"It takes up too much damn space! We are fifteen to sixteen people in the house. And there is not enough space for us to sleep in this house. So, all the boys and the men and the younger children, they sleep outside. And we would prefer that the government should build some toilets outside."

"Earlier, before the government built these houses, where we were living, we had much bigger space. It's like three times the size of this room, and we used to have enough space. But when we moved into the pucca construction built by the government the space has been reduced. And we were used to going outside for toilet."

OK. My last argument. Surely, a modern toilet inside the home is more sanitary, better for everyone's health?

"See, we don't have good flushing facility, so, all the time, the bathroom stinks. And we have to sleep next to it. And we eat also. We don't think it is very good for our health also. But we have no other alternative.

Back in Byculla, I thought I'd better go and see Rehmat again. Where do the women of Mahila Milan want the toilet when they finally move into a pucca home of their own? Rehmat was busy preparing lunch, so I waited till everything was simmering and under control.

But blow me down if Rehmat didn't come up with a fifth reason why they don't want toilets inside their houses!

"I would prefer toilets to be outside my home, because if they build toilets inside

the home, then we won't be able to meet other people. When we go for toilet we socialise. We meet other people. We talk to them. So we would prefer toilets to be outside and not in the house. And if they could organise for ten households one toilet that would be better!"

This is what makes sense for Rehmat and the other pavement dwellers. And, of course, there's also pride of ownership, like on P.D'Melo Road. They can build the toilets themselves. For Indian and Western development people - and I can tell you because I've asked the question and heard the same answer many times - well for these decent and well-intentioned people it comes as a shock to discover the poor don't share their dream, or necessarily all their values. A toilet in every house is simply not a priority, nor is it something they even want.

Episodes 1 - 4
Episodes 5 - 8
Episodes 9 - 12
Episodes 13 - 16
Episodes 17 - 20
Episodes 21 - 24
Episodes 25 - 28
Episodes 29 - 32
Episodes 33 - 35

Main Episode List
Cast of Characters
MP 3

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