Yogita Dighe works as a salesperson at an electronics store in Aundh, an upmarket neighbourhood in Pune, India’s ninth-largest city.
Even though she has a comfortable job, Dighe used to be filled with consternation at the thought of having to use the store’s toilet. It is a unisex space shared by customers and staff, and is “constantly dirty” owing to overuse, being cleaned only once every day or two.
“It smells and I don’t like to enter it,” she says.
A year ago, Dighe discovered a “Ti bus” (“ti” translating as “her” from Marathi) – a restroom inside a decommissioned bus, parked about five minutes away from her workplace. Since then, she’s used it regularly. Cleaned after every use, the toilets within the bus “feel nice and fresh”.
Dighe says she can also wash and freshen up there, since running water and a mirror are always available, unlike the bathroom at her workplacr.
Dighe is not alone. Her peers, women working elsewhere in the market in shops and small offices, as well as female sweepers, vada pav and chai hawkers, security guards and police officers who do not have access to clean toilets in their vicinity, are also regulars, says Manisha Adhav, the attendant who works at the Aundh Ti bus.
Currently, 12 decommissioned city buses in Pune have been converted and refurbished into restrooms by SaraPlast, a private sanitation company.
Located near public parks, bus stops and tourist centres, the buses-turned-bathrooms fulfil a deficit for women not only in Pune, but also in Hyderabad, Andaman and Nicobar’s touristy Neil Island and, as of next month, in Noida and Gandhinagar.
It is common for women in India to scramble to find a clean toilet during their daily commute to work, school or while running errands. Bus stops, crowded markets and even tourist spots either lack hygienic restrooms or don’t have one at all, leading women to avoid drinking water for hours.
The True Cost of Poor Sanitation, the most recent report on the subject conducted by Lixil, WaterAid Japan and Oxford Economics, in 2016, stated that a lack of access to sanitation cost India 5.2 per cent of its GDP in 2015. The situation has not improved much since then.
Pune has only 1,240 toilets for a population of 6.8 million, according to the Pune Municipal Corporation. Some of these are non-functional, and many others are used as dumping grounds for tobacco and cigarette butts. Most Indian cities also suffer from a lack of constant flowing water in public toilets.
It’s why the team at SaraPlast, which is in the business of building portable toilets for construction sites, decided to build these lavatories for women and children. Each solar-powered bus toilet comes with a full-time female attendant and can be accessed either free of charge or for a fee of 5 rupees (25 fils), affordable even for low-income women.
Prior to the pandemic, the average footfall for restrooms was 150 to 200 per day, says Ulka Sadalkar, SaraPlast’s director.
A study published in the Indian Journal of Gender Studies in 2019, found that women were unable to use public toilets owing to a lack of water, adequate light, accessibility and visibility from main roads, sanitary towel disposal bins and absence of female attendants.
SaraPlast’s toilets check all these boxes. Showers, Indian and western latrines, breastfeeding and baby-changing stations, sanitary towels and drinking water are all included in the buses to meet the needs of every woman.
Vaishnavi Rajput, a business development professional in Pune, has become particularly picky about public toilets since the pandemic started. “I choose the Ti bus over a lot of cafe toilets,” she says.
Sadalkar says: “Every person, whether rich or poor, should have access to a good, clean toilet.”
But to run a sustainable business, the space includes either a kiosk selling masks and juices or an affordable health diagnostic centre, set up on one side of the bus. Banner ads also bring in revenue, which goes towards water supply, electricity, repairs and the salary of the attendant who cleans and maintains the restroom from 8am to 8pm.
In India, a public bus goes out of commission after 15 years. Pune’s transport department recently auctioned 400 buses for scrapping and has 150 more in its stores.
Recycling the body of the buses and building toilets within them prolongs their life by up to two decades, aside from the social service it offers.
Buses are placed where brick and mortar toilets cannot be built owing to a lack of space and infrastructure.
“I don’t have to buy land or get permissions, so it is faster than constructing a concrete toilet,” Sadalkar says. “A bus toilet can also be placed on a heritage site without damaging anything, which is a big advantage.”
While the running costs are borne by SaraPlast, the funding for construction comes from the CSR departments of corporates, while the local municipality office appoints a location, and sorts out connections to existing drainage, water and electricity lines.
Other cities are following in Pune’s footsteps, too. Last year, Bengaluru commissioned SaraPlast to convert a scrapped bus into a toilet and installed it at a bus stop in the city.
The concept was so well received that NK Basavaraju, chief mechanical engineer – production at Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation, says: "Now, the city’s transport department is emulating the design to create many more bus toilets.”
* Video shot and provided by SaraPlast