Unanswered call by By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed
Public toilets are disappearing fast in densely populated city of Lahore
It was his fault but not big enough to be punished with a bullet shot in his leg. Yes it’s exactly what happened with Majid Abbas, 17, earlier this month. The poor boy had dared to answer the call of nature at the site of an under-construction plaza at Liberty Market. Majid, who later recorded his statement with the police, says a private security guard posted at the site asked him to get up and move away but he couldn’t as it was too late. “I couldn’t hold it back any further, but I didn’t know the guard will fire a shot at me.” He says it was only after a failed attempt to find a public toilet or such facility at some public place that he used the space as a last resort.
The ordeal which Majid went through (before the shooting incident took place), has been experienced by most of us many a time. It’s no secret how difficult, rather painful it becomes when you can’t find a place to relieve yourself. Had there been a nearby public toilet, even a paid one, Majid would have avoided coming in the line of fire.
The non-existence or unusable state of public toilets at places like bus terminals, shopping centres, public parks, government offices and courts is something that needs urgent attention of the authorities and an immediate redressal. Despite being an essential component of all town planning exercises, public toilets are nowhere to be seen in our city. Even if they are, it’s next to impossible for a normal human being to enter them and bear the stench and the gory sight of what awaits them. To make matters worse there is no water connection and the wash basins and other sanitary ware are cracked or broken altogether.
It’s a pity that the number of public toilets in the city has gone down instead of going up irrespective of the fact that Lahore’s population has grown at an alarming pace over the years. Till last year there were only 40 public toilets in a city of around 8 million inhabitants. This phenomenon appears even absurd keeping in view the fact that a dedicated public facilities department has been established by the district government to settle public grievances regarding parking stands, public toilets, bus stands, shades in parks and so on.
Lahore District Nazim Mian Amir Mahmood has recently announced that 50 spots have been identified in the city for construction of public toilets. When will the funds be released to purchase and construct public toilets and what will be the timeframe, are questions yet to be answered.
Ali Imtiaz Kirmani, District Officer (DO) Public Facilities tells TNS that he knows about the plan but does not have accurate information at hand. “I have been posted here recently and can let you know about the exact details in a couple of days,” he adds.
An official at City District Government Lahore (CDGL) tells TNS on conditions of anonymity that construction of public toilets is seen as unprofitable project for the city government. “The project requires land, the price of which has skyrocketed over time. As public toilets are needed the most at busy and crowded places the price of land is highest there.” The official goes on to say that maintenance of public toilets is more difficult than merely constructing them. Even if you put a price tag on the use of public toilets the returns are not sufficient to pay the utility bills,” he adds.
Chaudhry Mahmood, a town planner, has a solution in his mind. Citing the example of San Francisco’s street toilet programme, he says the model can be replicated here after little modifications. He says though public toilet users pay money for availing the facility, the main costs of maintenance are covered by selling advertising spaces on cylindrical kiosks housing these toilets in high traffic areas.
Anyhow, the non-availability of public toilets does not mean that all the Lahorites have to relieve themselves within the range of a rifle shot. Men can easily do that against any wall caring less for what’s written inches above: “Woh dekho kuttay ka bacha peshab kar raha hai.” Or they can use the toilets built at mosques. But in such a case they have to offer prayers there as these toilets can be used only by ‘namazis’.
The problem is even bigger for women who cannot avail these options. They have to look out for a fast food outlet, hotel or a big departmental store. Sometimes they can do it for free but on other occasions toilet usage can cost a few hundred rupees spent on food or some other merchandise.
A recent development in the right direction has been the authorities’ realisation of the fact that all construction bylaws need to be followed with extreme diligence. Haji Javed, a computer vendor at Hafeez Center, tells TNS that several committees formed by civic bodies are inspecting commercial buildings to check whether all the requirements have been fulfilled or not. He says it’s binding on the owners of all commercial plazas in the city to construct public toilets at every floor of a building. “What normally happens is that shop or office owners keep toilets for their own use and lock them otherwise. We have received instructions that these toilets should be kept open as customers have an equal right to use them,” he adds.