The right to pee: An integral part of the right to the city?

Delhi hosted its second Habitat III Urban Thinkers Campus, this time focusing on sanitation and safety.

Pictures indicate the location of men's and women's toilets in Bikaner, India. In most of the country's urban areas, however, women's needs are not taken into consideration in planning. (Radiokafka/Shutterstock)

NEW DELHI, India — At a time when building “smart cities” is high on the Indian government’s agenda, it is unsurprising that there is a lively parallel discussion taking place on urban inclusion. Should inclusion be an explicit part of the smart solutions for urban India, including its smart cities? What if it is not — and who defines inclusion in the first place?

These are important questions that figured at the heart of a Habitat III forum, known as an Urban Thinkers Campus, that took place in New Delhi in mid-February. The event focused on how to build an inclusive smart city, particularly in the context of sanitation and safety. Both are critical elements of the debate on cities in this country of over 1.2 billion people.

The Urban Thinkers Campuses are an initiative of UN-Habitat’s World Urban Campaign aimed at providing an open space for public exchanges on issues that are critical to cities and city dwellers around the world. More than two dozen such thematic campuses have been taking place in recent months, aimed at offering formal stakeholder input to the drafting of the New Urban Agenda — the global urbanization strategy that will come out of Habitat III, the U. N.’s major cities conference that will take place in October.

[See here for all of Citiscope’s coverage of the Urban Thinkers Campuses]

In India as much as anywhere, the battle for a sustainable future will be won or lost in urban areas. City dwellers comprise nearly a third of the Indian population, while cities contribute more than 60 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

What, then, will the sustainable Indian city look like, and what are the roadblocks to getting there? The Urban Thinkers Campus discussions did not provide a comprehensive blueprint on these complex questions, but they did generate a robust outline. One key theme that emerged was with regard to “the vital role of local governments, be it in the area of sanitation or safety,” said Rajan Samuel, managing director of Habitat for Humanity (India). Habitat for Humanity and UN-Women organized the campus.

Swacch Bharat

One of the most important sessions debated how to make urban services more inclusive and what works for the urban poor. Participants repeatedly stressed the importance of involving all stakeholders, including those in marginalized communities.

[See: Inextricably interlinked: The urban SDG and the new development agenda]

India has mounted an official Swacch Bharat (Clean India) initiative. But while there is much talk about toilets and cleanliness, what does not get enough play is the issue of waste management. Only around 30 percent of the sewage generated by 377 million urban Indians is treated. The rest is dumped on land and in water, polluting some three-quarters of the country’s water bodies, according to an analysis by the portal IndiaSpend.

Isher Judge Ahluwalia, the board chair Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, flagged the need for solid waste management in Indian cities during her keynote address to the campus. When it comes to waste, there is “more of collection and very little of processing and disposal,” she said.

Often, there isn’t even all that much collection, or at least not enough. Many Indian cities are strewn with garbage. Yet to get municipal waste-disposal working well, one has to start with public awareness and the need to change habits — such as segregating wet and dry waste, followed by recycling as far as possible.

Ahluwalia pointed to a few Indian towns and cities that are taking the lead in this direction. A telling example is Pammal, a small town in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. There the community has taken the lead in waste management, in partnership with the municipality. Other models are Surat, Chandigarh and Navi Mumbai.

[See: How Durban set the global standard for providing water and sanitation for the poor]

City governments need three critical factors to be successful — support from the state government, resources and local champions. Though an amendment to the Indian Constitution stipulates financial devolution, state governments have been reluctant to empower local governments, Ahluwalia noted. And private money will not become available until a viable revenue model is worked out.

Who would not want to be smart? But to be smart, you have to be healthy — and today, India’s cities are neither physically nor financially healthy.

A toilet without water is like a computer without power. Cities cannot be smart unless these obstacles are overcome. Smart cities are not built merely with technology and infrastructure, important as they are.

Pivotal to safety

At the Delhi Urban Thinkers Campus — the second such event the city has hosted — one session focused on making urban services inclusive. There, Bipin Rai, an official working with the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board, spoke about the Indian capital’s experiments with “bicycle toilets”. These are meant to cater to informal settlements in Delhi lacking adequate toilet facilities.

[See: Informal economy offers opportunity, not just survival, Indian Habitat III sessions urge]

Sanitation in the Indian context is inextricably linked with safety. A session on gender-based risks and violence examined the role of toilets in creating safer cities for women and girls. Men and women, boys and girls, experience the city differently, with girls and women tending to be at greater risk if have to go out at odd hours to ease themselves. That is why toilets can play a pivotal role in creating safer cities for women.

In Mumbai, members of the Right to Pee campaign have been demanding better public toilet facilities for women. There are over 2,800 free urinals for men in India’s financial capital, but none are earmarked for women. The campaign — which involves NGOs, budget experts and architects, among others — says if the local civic body cannot provide free toilets for women, then it should ask men to pay. One participant asserted that the “right to pee” is an integral part of the Right to the City.

Activists attending the Urban Thinkers Campus said the campaign had led to greater policy attention to sanitation, with urinals for women becoming a more regular part of planning and budgets.

[See: In informal settlements of Nairobi, women look to Habitat III on inclusive planning]

Jagori is a women’s resource group that has helped design SafetiPin, a map-based mobile-phone app geared to making New Delhi and other cities safer for women. Activist-researcher Kalpana Viswanath of Jagori talked of the need to not only to raise awareness about sexual harassment on streets and to make women more aware of unsafe spots but also to provide shelter for those who are at risk.

“We have to frame the discussion on the safe city within the framework of rights, not protection,” she said. “Safety is a right. That is why it is vital to move the onus of safety from the woman’s body with questions like what was she wearing, doing or where was she going to urban planning. There is a need to talk more about adequate public transport, shelter homes, legislation and so on.”

Supreet Singh works for Safecity, another NGO that uses information technology to track unsafe spots for women in several Indian cities. She emphasised the need for local, community-led solutions.

Safecity’s recent campaign took place in Sanjay Camp, a New Delhi slum where women faced harassment when they would try to use a community toilet. The group’s initiative was innovative: Local boys and girls created a mural on the toilet walls to express the concerns of women and girls.

This led to greater community awareness, said Singh, and helped sensitize the men and boys who would earlier stand around the toilet, often leering and commenting on women who passed by. The situation for women is far safer now, she noted.

Recommendations for the New Urban Agenda

The UTC wrapped up with several recommendations:

1.     The urban scenario requires tripartite solutions involving water, sanitation and housing.

2.     Water harvesting, solid and liquid waste management and proper waste disposal (including faecal sludge management) need to be done.

3.     Ensure that adequate data and research of the extent of the need for safe cities, housing and sanitation is made available. Collaboration between local bodies should ensure sharing and validation of data.

4.     Encourage the use of technology to help make our cities smarter and safer, to make more cost effective and efficient designs for sanitation and housing, to capture people’s voices, and also to tackle manmade and natural disasters.

5.     Total sanitation coverage requires a strong behaviour change model.

6.     Public People Private Partnership: People’s participation needs to be encouraged and enabled along with responsive governments for cities to transform.

7.     Urban planners need to keep in mind the needs of vulnerable groups including women, children, elderly and the disabled. Eg. Women need to be given special focus for safety, economic empowerment and participation. Children need open spaces to play.

8.     Strengthen and empower local governments and city level administration for better planning and implementation including e-governance, efficient delivery systems and monitoring systems and adequate funding.

9.     The implementation of policies and plans need to be inclusive of all people including the homeless and marginalised and the informal sector.

10.  Recognise the informal sector in urban cities (barrier free cities). The city belong to each one and we must integrate all. We specially need to look at generating employment and lifting the standard of living of people in the informal sector.

11.  Multiple sources of finances need to be drawn in including government subsidies, corporate social responsibility, private sector, micro finance and beneficiary contribution.

12.  Training and capacity building of labour should be done to generate skilled masons for construction work, which in turn also improves livelihoods and lifestyles.

13.  Centre stage gender equity in urban planning. Gender needs to be a common thread through all development goals and agendas.

14.  Each one needs to take responsibility. People need to respect their city and take action like waste segregation, work with local government bodies and demand the city they need.

15.  Need to focus on making projects sustainable and scalable by learning from successes and involving people, multi stakeholder approaches and collaborative efforts between people and government.

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Patralekha Chatterjee

Patralekha Chatterjee is  a Delhi-based, award-winning journalist and columnist. She has written extensively on Asian cities.