Maharashtra's Deputy CM Ajit Pawar does not have a good reputation on sensitive issues. This is the man whose response to a farmer's hunger strike for water was to ask sarcastically if he should urinate to fill up the dams. So there is some surprise that a meeting between him and some NGOs seems to have prompted a remarkably sensitive circular from the state's labour department directing all commercial establishments to provide separate toilets for women staff, or face penalties and even criminal action.
Implementing this will not be easy, but there is no denying the need for greater awareness and action on this issue across India. Participation of women in the workplace has been steadily increasing, but facilities for them have not kept pace. Speak to almost any woman who has worked for a few years and has experience of different workplaces and you will get many stories about inadequate, badly designed, poorly maintained and sometimes completely non-existent toilet facilities.
In the past, companies routinely refused to hire women on the grounds they didn't have toilet facilities for them. All-male offices were common, causing problems like the one faced by one woman journalist who was commissioned to write a corporate history of one such place. "When I went to interview executives they would offer me coffee, and I learned to refuse it because it would put me in an awkward position!" she says.
Women working for one national newspaper had horror stories of the non-functional toilets. The women working in the newspaper office had to walk across the road to the five-star hotel on the opposite side (this was before the attacks of 26/11 increased security and made such casual walk-ins increasingly tough). Another problem, common in factory offices, was to have just one ladies toilet in some distant corner, which subjected any visiting woman to an embarrassing escorted walk to it. Worse, says one consultant, is when the key got lost: "You are dying to go and everyone is running around looking for the key!"
Larger corporate offices in cities such as Mumbai have generally improved their facilities, usually helped by the move away from cramped older buildings to newly built offices. But the real driver for change has been the increasing number of women at senior levels. "As soon as large companies like Colgate got women at a senior level, the toilets improved," says the consultant. A retired senior banker recalls the change at the Reserve Bank of India when Amrita Patel was nominated to its board: "There was no toilet for women on the director's floor before that, but she made sure one was put in."
If access is one battle, quality is another. Maintaining clean public toilets in India is always a challenge, but it is made worse for women by the fact that most administrative managers are men who are ignorant of women's needs. Women's toilets routinely lack dustbins, or hooks for bags or shelves to keep phones and purses. "Men never think about their clothes not having pockets!" says one colleague bitterly. And it is a problem that is found in our most important institutions. One lady lawyer in the Supreme Court complains about its dirty, smelly and overcrowded toilets: "There is no soap, Dettol, phenyl or toilet paper. That's too much to ask for. The employees in charge of cleaning very often don't turn up."
A third issue is relative size. Nearly every organisation allots larger space to men's toilets in reflection of the larger number of men in the workplace. But as numbers of women rise, this is not ideal, for basic reasons of space and biology — women need stalls which take up more space than men's urinals, and they take longer. In Rose George's 'The Big Necessary', a study of the world of human waste disposal, she cites research that establishes that women on an average take 90 seconds to urinate while men take 45. A logical design for an equitable workplace would allot more space to the women's toilet, and less to the men's, since more urinals can be put in a smaller space, and can be used faster. But very few architects — a male-dominated profession — would see it this way.
Toilets are a sign of the real level of inclusion of women in institutions. The Supreme Court's poor record with women judges is well known and so is the tokenism with which some political parties treat women. One political correspondent notes that in the towns of western Uttar Pradesh, barring a few offices of BSP and Congress, most political parties especially SP and BJP have only male urinals. "There are very few women party members and they spend very little time in office even if they happen to come. We have a toilet in the backyard that was cleaned when Smriti Irani was chosen as a candidate, but it was rarely used," a BJP member in Amethi said.
George notes that toilets have long been a crucible for deeper concerns: "Public restrooms fuel old, primeval concerns about territoriality, which should be guarded, and strangers, who should be feared." One way to keep women at home was not to provide public toilets. In 19th century Britain when groups like the Ladies Sanitary Association started agitating for them, they faced fierce resistance. "Sanctioning the women's lavatory effectively sanctioned the female presence in the streets, thus violating middle-class decorum and ideals of women as static and domestic," write Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner in 'Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender', a collection of essays they edited on public toilet history and culture.
The reluctance to provide women's toilets in Indian shops and offices echoes these concerns, though it is often cloaked either in a convenient embarrassment or an ostensibly practical concern with costs. Installing separate toilets requires capital, which can suddenly turn scarce, even when more general expenditure, for example on air-conditioning, are easily sanctioned. The spread of malls and cafes has become an easy way to justify this — women are simply pointed to the bathrooms in these places despite the problems they may face getting there, and the fact that many don't maintain their facilities well.
This happens even in areas where women dominate, like the many beauty parlours in areas such as Delhi's Lajpat Nagar. Ritu Johri a Class-X pass recently quit her job as a hair dresser in one of these popular parlours. In the past six years, she has worked in eight parlours in the same area. "None of them has toilets — only a wash basin for the clients. We work for at least 8 hours everyday. Going to the nearby restaurant or mall was the only option we had, but it is very embarrassing. I started developing health problems," says the 21-year-old.
One solution many smaller offices go in for is the unisex toilet. This does deal with gender disparity and may be viable when staff levels are small and homogenous. But it is a solution many women dislike simply because men are usually less careful in taking care of facilities — and happy to let women take on an informal clean-up role. It is also, paradoxically, a solution that has been used against women, for example, during the battle in the US in the 1970s to pass an Equal Rights Amendment guaranteeing equality to women. Opponents claimed that rabid feminists would push to make all public toilets unisex and such allegations proved effective in raising fears that helped stall its ratification.
It was an example of how territorial toilet fears can be used in politics, usually negatively. (Mahatma Gandhi was the very rare example of a politician who tried to use toilets in a positive sense and the difficulty of this position can be seen from how far modern India falls short of his toilet ideals). Toilet access for people of all colours featured prominently during desegregation battles in the US in the 1960s, and feature today in the battles being fought over allowing transgendered people access to the toilet of their choice. Opponents to transgender rights routinely use arguments about girls being traumatised by finding "men" using their toilets claiming to be transgendered.
A few years ago, a version of this battle played out in a Mumbai club. A member invited a well-known transgender activist (with a female identity) for a private party at the club, but when some members had problems, she was asked to leave. In the furore that followed, when members objected to that followed, when members objected to that action, one justification given was the argument: "Which bathroom would he/she have used? And if it was the women's bathroom wouldn't the other women be uncomfortable?" It was never made clear what she would have been doing in the bathroom to make other women uncomfortable, but just the association with toilets was felt to be enough.
This particular issue was never clearly solved, but the club has quietly installed a solution that might take installed a solution that might take care of this issue if it ever comes up again. In addition to the existing men's and women's toilets, a separate unisex toilet has been installed, which is also enabled for the handicapped. The club would probably deny this was meant for transgendered guests (or members); it could equally be a solution for another little addressed toilet problem — the dilemma faced by a father alone with a small daughter or a mother alone with a small son when the child needs to go to the toilet.
Effectively though, this combination of men's, women's and unisex toilets is the best solution for any large organisation dealing with the problems of toilet access. The Maharashtra order is, of course, primarily meant for more basic issue of giving women access to a toilet of any kind, and should be used by activists, and taken up in other states, for this purpose. But organisations should at least plan for a scenario where everyone has a toilet option that works for them.