18/11/2015 8:53 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Why Does India Need Accessible Toilets For The Differently-Abled? Because It's 2015

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I'm not an 'expert' on barrier-free and accessible built environments, but I've lived with aged grandparents who had mobility problems and had trouble getting on and off the toilet seat after a certain age. When I was in college, my grandfather slipped on the bathroom floor and he could hardly get up after that. I rue the fact that we didn't have skid-proof bathroom tiles or sliding doors in our house back in 2007.

I've been reviewing public toilets in Kolkata for my non-profit Loo Watch for a couple of months. And I keep in mind the accessibility issues that my grandparents faced when I review public toilets run by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. Kolkata has 307 Pay & Use public toilets as of September, 2015, as per the response to my RTI query which I filed two months back.

"[A] change is possible and we can achieve Accessible India along with a Swachh Bharat with proactive initiatives from the government."

I've been able to visit only 25 toilets because finding all of them in this city of more than 14 million with the addresses given in the RTI response by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation is like the quest for the Holy Grail. These 25 toilets are spread across the city and unfortunately even in posh locations of the city there are no provisions to make them accessible to the differently abled or the elderly. I saw a public toilet in the shape of the Sydney Opera House and another shaped like a metro rail coach in Kolkata, but I did not find any grab rails or ramps in these toilets. How much would it have cost to put such basic elements in these government-run public toilets?

According to the 2011 Census, India's differently-abled population increased by 22.4% between 2001 and 2011, i.e. the number of such people, which was 2.19 crore in 2001, rose in 2011 to 2.68 crore. Although rural areas have more differently-abled people than cities do, the growth rate of this population is higher in urban areas, especially among females.

Despite these growing numbers, leaving aside malls, airports and some hotels, barrier-free toilets are very hard to come by in public spaces even though the government has published guidelines and acts for making our public spaces and built environments barrier-free. The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 by the Government of India and the National Building Code 2005 has provisions for non-discrimination in the built environment. The Handbook on Barrier Free and Accessibility published by the Central Public Works Department in 2014 is a fascinating read, with chapters 8, 9 and 10 laying out extensive guidelines for making toilets and bathrooms accessible and barrier-free. If these are implemented then we will become one of the most barrier-free and accessible countries in the world.

This September, our honourable Prime Minister called for an 'Accessible India'. There are also reports that a new index on 3 December will be unveiled as part of the 'Accessible India' campaign to rate companies across public and private sectors for disabled -friendly initiatives. How about rating and incentivising elected representatives of urban local bodies which make basic utilities, especially toilets, accessible and barrier-free?

There are best practices from all over the world if we are willing to learn. Changing Spaces Consortium, a group of organisations working to support the rights of people with profound and multiple learning disabilities and/or other physical disabilities, launched its campaign in 2006 for people in the UK who cannot use standard toilets. It also came up with designs and developed equipment which would make public toilets more accessible.

Closer home, the Namma Toilets which were inaugurated with much fanfare in Chennai had separate cubicles for the differently-abled. These developments show that a change is possible and we can achieve Accessible India along with a Swachh Bharat (Clean India) with proactive initiatives from the government.

Some might ask why I am advocating for barrier-free and accessible toilets at this stage when there aren't enough public loos in our cities. To answer this, I'll borrow the words of a wise Canadian gentleman: "Because it's 2015."

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