Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Potty Disparity at the Planning Commission

The Planning Commission  (PC) of India is in the news again for all the wrong reasons. This time an RTI enquiry has revealed that PC has spent Rs. 3.4 million (Rs. 34 Lakhs)  to renovate two toilets at is Yojana Bhavan office. A new access-control system was installed in the toilets to ensure that only sixty officers with smart-cards could use these toilets.

This brings out a series of issues -- the absence of public hygiene even in premier government institutions; the tendency of our bureaucrats to play zero-sum games, to create solutions that seek to ensure their own comfort, and, most importantly, the ability of the middle-class to make a virtue out of hypocrisy and  apartheid. Segregation and access-control to toilets is merely an extension of a larger disconnect in our society.

A few days ago, I asked a colleague how he was coping with the ongoing shortage of power and water in suburban Delhi. "I too read about it in the papers", he said, "but I stay in a gated residential complex with 100% back-up for water and electricity...". Middle-class India lives far away from sweaty crowds waiting to fill buckets of water from water-tankers. It moves around in air-conditioned cars pretending not to see the beggars and vendors knocking on their window panes. So it is only natural that they would want to extend their comfortable cocoons to work-places, creating exclusive toilets that cannot be sullied by lesser mortals.

How have other countries dealt with similar problems?

In USA, segregation of toilet facilities by race was outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. "Rest-room Equity Acts" or "Potty parity Laws" were passed in many states to ensure that women are not “tethered close to home by the bladder's leash”.

In Japan the 're-booting' of social habits after the Meiji Restoration included compulsory training in toilet etiquette at the primary school level. Over the past century this training has been so deeply embedded in the social DNA that it ensures, to a large extent, that adults visiting public toilets use the towels and napkins to leave the toilets clean for those who come after them. This self-regulation minimises the work of janitors who are usually specialized workers outsourced from external contractors.

In India the problem goes beyond gender and race to the issues related to social classes. In the case of the Planning Commission, if a lady dignitary were to come for a meeting, would she have to borrow one of the 60 swipe-cards given to PC officials, to access a loo? Where would her driver go if he wanted to relieve himself?

I am waiting to hear the PC version of the story.  If the PC Dy.Chairman's previous rebuttal is anything to go by, I guess they will simply reiterate the need for officials to have cleaner toilets than their minions.

Post Script, 7 Jun 2012

The Planning Commission has come up with a defense. "the toilet expenditure was necessary", said their statement, "because PC has over 1500 meetings every year...". What about the access control? Well, that is "to make women feel more secure".  Quite an absurd explanation given the fact that the building is guarded by dozens of security guards, and is located in one of the most secure zones of Delhi.
So the fact remains that 60 toilet-access-cards were issued to officials in PC. According to the PC website there are over 150 senior officials in Yojana Bhavan, so it must house at least 300 employees in the building. Is it safe to assume that a majority of employees & visitors to PC would be barred from using the two toilets that have been refurbished with Rs.35 Lakhs of the taxpayers money?

True to form, Shekhar Gupta's Express has come up with a editorial defending PC. Predictably, it ignores  the issue of access control, and tilts at windmills by defending the Dy.Chairman. You can fool some people sometimes...


* Sainath, P (2012): THE AUSTERITY OF THE AFFLUENT, The Hindu, 21 May 2o12, URL -

* Planning Commission spends Rs. 35 lakh to renovate two toilets in Delhi (PTI/NDTC, 6 Jun 2012) -

* Planning commission renovates 2 toilets at Rs 35 lakh (PTI/ToI) -

* "Potty-Parity Laws" -

* Mary Anne Case (2005?): Why not abolish the laws of urinary segregation? Chicago University, URL -

* Clarification from PC (6 June 2012) -

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