Bombay High Court makes Right to Clean Toilets a Fundamental Right for Women in India
Some women in India have to risk their life and sexual integrity when they decide to go to the toilet. Others who do have access to public toilets face the danger of contracting diseases. In 2014, two girls were found hanging from a tree in Katra, Sahadatganj (State of Uttar Pradesh). They had gone out to use the field as a toilet but instead they ended up being gang raped and lynched. Many articles were written linking their murders to the lack of toilets.
More and more women in India are joining the workforce and spending many hours away from home and on the road. This, however, does not relieve them of their household duties, including caring for children or elderly family, so when women go to work they make many stopovers, sometimes accompanied by young children. In such circumstances, it is extremely difficult for women to use dilapidated or absent toilet facilities. Moreover, in Mumbai, a city of more than 18 million people, there are no free toilets for women, yet free urinals for men run in the thousands. So, for a woman daily wage earner who makes 100 Rupees (about £1) a day, going to the paid toilets at a cost of 5 Rupees per visit becomes a financial burden, even more so if she has children or is differently abled or mentally disabled.
Given these injustices, 40 community based organization in Mumbai launched the Right to Pee campaign in 2013 to demand better toilet facilities for themselves and for the ‘women on the streets’. This led to the enactment of a public policy initiative oriented towards safeguarding the rights of women called the Maharashtra Policy for Women, 2013 which created a duty on the State of Maharashtra to construct toilets for women every twenty kilometers. However, these measures were grossly inadequate, leading NGOs to knock on the doors of the Court in the case of Milun Saryajani v. Pune Municipal Corporation and Others.
They filed Public Interest Litigation (PIL) under Article 226 of the Constitution of India in the Bombay High Court. The issues raised revolved around health and the rights of women to have public toilets at various places in a clean and hygienic condition. The petitioners contented that due to nonexistence of public utilities for women, or where lavatories exist but are rendered unusable due to safety concerns, geographical non-accessibility or unhygienic conditions, women are forced to hold in their urine for extended periods of time. To avoid using the dirty toilets, many women do not drink their daily requirement of water, with impact on their health, including increased chance of urinary tract infections, prolapsed bladder, involuntary urine release etc.
The High Court accepted the medical science linking these conditions to the deferring of urination and acknowledged that “Toilet issues affect all ‘users’, but more particularly women.” The Court then proceeded to hold that clean public toilets contribute to the health and well being of the society. It stated:
“[Women] need these facilities at public places like Railway Stations, Bus Stands, Banks, Public Offices like State Government Offices/Municipal Offices. Public health is of paramount importance and that it is the duty of the State and the Corporations to ensure that public latrines, urinals and similar conveniences are constructed, maintained and kept in a hygienic condition. The need for toilets is felt even more acutely, during menstruation.”
In coming to this conclusion, the Court relied heavily on the wide scope of Article 21 (protection of life and liberty), as well as Article 47 (duty to raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living and to improve public health). The Supreme Court of India has expanded the scope of Article 21 and has included the right to live with dignity and all the necessities of life, such as adequate nutrition, clothing, health, etc. It referred to a judgment of the Apex Court where the court held that “.. maintenance and improvement of public health are indispensable and attending to public health is of high priority-perhaps the one at the top. ”
The High Court then proceeded to gave detailed instructions on a number of requirements necessary to fulfil these rights, including: the supply of water and electricity, cleanliness and odour, security, tampon and sanitary napkin dispensers and disposal bins, provision for the disabled, cleaning equipment, signs indicating the location of public washrooms, publicity to the provision of public toilets for women etc. What emerges is that women have the fundamental right to have safe and clean toilets at all convenient places in India. This recognizes their right to live with human dignity.