Ahmed Raza is a regular visitor to the wholesale markets in Lahore where he spends long hours making purchases and getting the merchandise loaded on vehicles.
Being a diabetic, he has a frequent urge to answer the call of nature but can’t always find a toilet. While he can see several people (men) doing that against walls on the roadside, he has never thought of following their example. He says his prayers regularly so he usually has this issue when he is out. Earlier, he would use a mosque restroom but now things have changed; the facilities are mostly locked, and open only during prayer timings. The wholesale markets do have toilets but these are strictly for the use of shopkeepers, and the visitors are discouraged.
The situation for women is worse. They are reluctant to use public toilets at congested places, and cannot use the ones at mosques. In case the shopkeepers allow them to use their facilities, these are on the rooftops that one has to reach after climbing stairs of multi-storey buildings and passing through dark alleys.
Over the years, toilets for public use located at marketplaces and public areas have just disappeared and probably eaten up by construction done at commercial level. The commercial plazas that are supposed to have the facilities at every floor hardly have them and in many cases shops and offices have been built at these designated places.
This is the situation in the metropolitan city of Lahore and the situation is far worse in other cities of the province, especially the rural areas. And even discouraging is the fact that the respective governments are doing nothing to reverse the situation. While the world celebrates the World Toilet Day November 19 (today), all that the City District Government Lahore (CDGL) sources have to say is that they are working on a plan and will announce it soon. But whether they have the resources to do so, in an environment where the provincial government enjoys absolute control, is a relevant question.
Dr Imdad Hussain, Director, Punjab Urban Resource Center (PURC), thinks the major reasons for lack of public toilets are that there have been no strong local governments in a long time. Secondly, there is no demand for public toilets. “Only strong local governments which have power to plan development can attend to such issues.”
His point is that the common people are facing so many problems that they do not care for sanitation and drainage. Also, they do not understand the technicalities of these services. One can see public protest against poor drainage only during the monsoon when a lot of properties are damaged.
Hussain terms the level of compliance with building bylaws far less than satisfactory. Though all private housing societies are required to make arrangements for solid waste management, he finds the implementation of these provisions as inappropriate. The general image about the Lahore Development Authority (LDA), a government body responsible for city’s infrastructural development, is that it does not have a system in place to make private housing societies undertake solid waste management. Therefore, people have no choice except to dispose off sewerage water into water bodies without treatment.
He refers to the River Ravi Commission formed by the Lahore High Court (LHC) that made proposals for low-cost treatment of sewerage water and advises the government to look into these proposals and implement them. Unlike others, he thinks open defecation may not be a serious problem in itself: “The latrines and gutters which people build in their homes are more dangerous than open defecation. The seepage from the gutters/septic tanks is polluting the underground water very fast.”
The LDA spokesman claims that there are building bylaws that the Authority gets enforced from time to time. The problem arises where the housing societies are not approved by LDA. “People keep on buying plots in such schemes despite warnings issued by us.
“Wherever the LDA carries out construction it ensures that toilets are there in required numbers,” he asserts. “The parking plazas like the one in the Liberty Market have toilets even for the people who come here just to park their vehicles.”
About the action that the LDA may take in case of non-compliance, Hussain says the Authority pledges 20 per cent plots of the housing societies it approves and releases them only once all the commitments have been fulfilled. A housing society on Ferozepur Road did not lay sewerage lines and connect these with Water and Sanitation (WASA) system so the LDA sold off the pledged plots and provided these facilities to the residents, he shares.
A look at the building bylaws not only reveals toilets are mandatory at commercial centres but are supposed to have certain specifications. The relevant bylaw states: “Every toilet, water closet, urinal stall and bath room shall be provided with day lighting and ventilation by means of one or more openings in external walls having a combined area of not less than 2sq ft (0.19 sq m) per water closet, urinal stall or bathroom and such openings shall be capable of allowing free un-interrupted passage of air.”
Fareed Malik, a sales representative based in Lahore, finds the public parks to be a blessing and says he often uses their toilets. “I’m out in the field throughout the day, so the need does arise,” he says. “The good thing is that I do not have to pay the parking fee. As I visit markets and deliver my company products to retailers and wholesalers, I can use their facilities but I avoid that. Firstly, because there are long queues outside [these toilets] and, secondly, we’ve been trained not to bother our clients.”
Dr Kiran Farhan is Senior Specialist, Solid Waste Management (SWM) at The Urban Unit, Government of Punjab — a unit that advises policymakers on urban development. She says the issue is not about having public toilets only, but in the required numbers, and how to maintain them. “The public toilets have to be constructed at places such as bus stands, public compounds, parks, railway stations, zoos etc., and at the confluence of important roads. And if one looks out for them they should be there. But the question whether these are in sufficient numbers and well-kept is very much relevant here.”
Talking about the privately owned places, Dr Farhan says the commercial plazas and markets etc are supposed to have these according to the overall footprint. This is one reason why people now prefer to go to the newly set up malls with their families rather than the conventional markets, because there they find well-maintained toilets also.
Rashid Mehmood, Director at Punjab Katchi Abadies Department, highlights another issue — the lack of toilets for dwellers of the katchi abadies, and the people suffering with disabilities. He mentions the meetings he has had with different town administrations of the province where he brought up the issue. “Where these are there already, they should fix them and convert at least one of these to meet the needs of the disabled.
“Ideally, toilets for the disabled must have space/ramp for wheelchair and handles on the wall for support,” he adds.