Pune; The Indian City That Is Turning Buses Into Bathrooms
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson
It is something we take for granted in the western world, the security of going to any town or city in the UK and much of Europe and being able to find and use a bathroom safely.
When women are out in public in Indian cities however, they struggle to find somewhere clean and safe to go to the toilet. Public facilities are scarce, often dirty and predominantly for men. ‘Holding it in’ is the main solution, causing discomfort as well as a health and safety problem for women in India, especially if they are menstruating or pregnant.
One city is working to change all of that, the city of Pune in western India. Home to some four million people, Pune suffers from the same lack of public toilets as the rest of the country. Ulka Sadalkar and Rajeev Kher, who together run a company that supplies portable toilets to businesses, sought to change this. In 2016, they converted an old municipal bus into a mobile public restroom for women.
Sadalkar said the idea was born after the two entrepreneurs held a brainstorming session with Pune’s municipal commissioner, Kunal Kumar. At this point, their company was already providing portable toilets for migrant workers at construction sites and to event-management companies. Sadalkar recalls:
“[Kumar] suggested that we take inspiration from a similar model in San Francisco that was converting old buses into restrooms for the homeless.” (City Lab)
Over the next year, the government in Pune offered Sadalkar and Kher twelve decommissioned buses to be turned into women’s restrooms and stationed near major bus stops, recreational areas and community centres.
The fleet of WiFi-enabled buses, named Ti (meaning ‘her’ in the local Marathi language), mostly run on solar power. Users pay five rupees for access to a shower, a nappy-changing station, sanitary pads, drinking water and a safe space for breastfeeding. There is also a TV that plays informative videos on menstruation issues, treating urinary tract infections, and self-examination for breast cancer.
Each bus has a café at the back with a full-time attendant and an emergency button connected to an alarm outside if the user feels unsafe. The buses can connect to sewer lines but also have tanks for holding waste.
“The idea is to give women what is theirs: safety and dignity. We do not have fancy marble floors, but the toilets we are building are clean and of good quality. In fact, it took us months to convince people here that public toilets can also be clean and safe to use, against the conventional notion in India.”
300 women may visit a bus on some days, although the average is between 100 and 150. Sadalkar continues:
“Our aim initially was to build toilets for mostly lower or middle-income groups, but the gap between the demand and the supply must be so huge that women from all classes are using them.”
At present, the program is supported by the local government and corporate social responsibility funds pooled from several companies. It costs approximately 1 million rupees (£10,926) to refurbish one bus. Sadalkar explains:
“Our long-term vision is to make the buses an information hub on health, and develop a channel with the government through which information on epidemic alerts—let’s say malaria and dengue—can be effortlessly passed on to people.”
Sadalkar recalls a conversation with a visitor working as a security guard at a nearby building. The woman told Sadalkar that the bus made her hopeful for her daughter’s future.
“She said that she would love for her daughter to get educated and join the workforce someday—she will not work at places without clean and functional toilets,” Sadalkar said. “I was overwhelmed.
Sadalkar and Kher’s vision for the moment is focused on creating these information health hubs across Pune, but ultimately hope to live in a country where ‘holding it in’ is not a woman’s best option.