“I do this job so that I can take off some of the load on my father, who is getting older as the days pass. My life revolves entirely around this place; I spend most of my time helping my dad over here. I am a cleaner by day and a student by night. I clean the toilets, the urinals and the entire floor at least four times. Only a handful of customers who walk into this public toilet talk to us with respect and humility. The others are just inhuman. I like doing this job because it is a public service I am doing for my country. I know I cannot become like PM Modi, but I would definitely love to contribute to my country by doing this,” says Vicky Tak with pride. This 20-year-old has been cleaning the public toilet that is located near Oval Maidan, Churchgate for the last two years.
As I make my way to work one morning, I feel the sudden urge to visit the bathroom. Stuck on the Western Express Highway, I knew that I could not relieve myself in the open. My only resort was a public toilet. I quickly parked my bike and headed towards it. After I was done, I was about to start walking back to my bike when I encountered a man waiting at the entrance, politely asking me to pay for using this service. I found it odd that people could be charged for using washrooms, and I was also curious to know what life was like for him as a caretaker of public toilets.
I met Shankar Prasad who works as a cashier at the public toilet situated right opposite Avion Hotel, Vile Parle East. He has been working here for the last nine years. Shankar, who hails from a village in Bihar, says, “We charge only for using the bathroom; the urinal is free for women at this toilet. The toilet is open for use by 6 a.m. in the morning and shuts by 11 p.m., and yet, there will always be drunkards who will come and trouble us at night; they don’t let us sleep peacefully. When the shutters are down and we are having dinner, customers still come and we are expected to open the doors for them to use the toilet.”
An interesting aspect of this public toilet is that it is beautifully maintained, and also houses a huge fish tank inside. In the course of our conversation, one of the cleaners, Jayram, offers me a cup of tea. As I am about to ask Jayram something, Shankar asks him to clean a urinal where a rickshaw driver has just spat. A few minutes later, he was back again with a smile on his face, ready to talk to me. “It’s been two years since I began cleaning toilets. Although I don’t like this job, I have no choice but to work as a cleaner. Apart from cleaning the floors and windows four times a day, I also make sure to clean the toilets soon after customers have visited them,” he says.
He takes out some tobacco and chuna, and I ask him if he does this to deal with the odour of his work place. He says yes and further adds, “Very often, customers throw chewing gum, gutka wrappers, and tissue paper inside the urinal. This makes it very difficult to clean them. Customers don’t like to wait at all, and if they see us mopping the floor or washing the commode, they start arguing with us and telling us how bad the toilet is. But there are some nice customers as well, who appreciate our work and give us between Rs 20 to 50 as tips for our work.”
A few kilometres away in Andheri, I come across Sunil Kumar, the 31-year-old caretaker of a public toilet. There weren’t many customers at this toilet, and Sunil thought I was from the BMC and was doing a survey on public toilets. When I informed him about why I was there, he seemed quite excited. “I got this job through one of my friends when I came to Mumbai six months ago. Though it is an easy job and there is not much hard work in it, I don’t like listening to the arguments of customers. They annoy us all the time. I earn a measly amount of Rs 7000 every month and we have to pay the owner of this toilet Rs 1200 every day. If we fail to earn this amount through the day, we have to pay him from our own pockets. My job involves sitting and collecting money, and I pass the time by watching movies and playing games on my phone,” he explains.
While it is not difficult to find public toilets at railway stations or in most areas in the city, finding one that houses a cleaner and cashier all the time can be a task. An astonishing fact is that most of these public toilets were run by men. I was surprised to find that not even one woman was looking after the ladies section of the public toilets.
After visiting public toilets in the suburbs, I headed to South Mumbai to experience the state of public toilets in the city’s high profile areas. I wasn’t entirely sure if these areas would even have public toilets!
Upon entering the urinal of a toilet at Prabhadevi, I felt like throwing up. There were only three urinal spots that were placed together in a manner that was too close for comfort. I went over to the counter where I met Kamlesh Maru, 39, who hails from Gujarat. He presented a view that was quite different from the others. He says, “I love my job and it pays me better than my last job did. I have been provided with a separate room adjacent to the toilet where I can sleep, eat and spend the rest of my day. This job also introduced me to the vegetable vendors in the area who now give me vegetables for free. The only part of this job that I hate is the way customers treat us, especially when they tell us that it is our duty to clean toilets and not argue with them. They make no attempts to understand us and just abuse us indiscriminately.” Kamlesh also said that though he loves this job, he will never let his children take it up.
Public toilets are perceived in many different ways. The privileged associate them with filth and smell, while the middle and lower classes see them for their utility. But for the cleaners and cashiers who work here, public toilets are a workplace, a source of livelihood, and a home. It is time that Mumbai and its people stop complaining and start appreciating the work of these uncomplaining, unsung heroes.