Taj Mahal city grapples with ‘open air’ crisis (Letter from Agra)

By Brij Khandelwal, IANS
Friday, November 19, 2010

AGRA - The Taj Mahal city of Agra is determined to spread civic awareness among the people to make them learn the crucial importance of having private toilets and the imperative need to use them.

The unbearable stench and the ever-rising level of pollution in the Yamuna waters have for long been among the major curses of the city. Officials say one of the main causes for this is the habit of people using the place as one huge public lavatory.

Building of more free or pay-to-use toilets have made little impact on the people’s awareness. Open air remains to be their favourite early morning relief destination.

A group of social activists and environmentalists has taken up the issue with the authorities. It has appealed to the government to take stern action against those who pollute the city and the river.

“There is hardly any sense of privacy or guilt complex. People seem to think these are Western notions,” social activist Ravi Singh told IANS.

A stranger to the city would be shocked if he accidentally steps behind any green bush, Raj Kumar of the Health for All campaign said.

The health hazard this poses is enormous. The sewage drains that open into the river and even the river bed are not spared this assault on nature. The city mainly uses recycled Yamuna water for its daily use, adds Lokendra Singh, a green activist.

Surendra Sharma, founder president of the Hotel and Restaurants Association, highlighted the problem with the existing public toilets.

There was an urgent need for the proper maintenance of public toilets, particularly around the historical monuments, he said. First time tourists to Agra will find the city’s stench unbearable, added Sharma.

The Agra Municipal Corporation has built community toilets or the Sulabh Shauchalayas in the slum clusters. People, however, give it a go and head for the nearest park, the highway, the rail track or the Yamuna, laments social worker Bankey Lal Maheshwari.

The Agra Nagar Nigam has a project to convert all dry latrines into flush toilets, for which each family is granted Rs.2,000. However, despite the construction of thousands of latrines, die-hard public habits remain.

Ramesh, a resident of Khandari, has an explanation for skipping the provided facility. “Why should we pay a rupee to use the toilet when this can be done free?” he asked.

“Where’s the water for flushing?” asked Shravan Kumar of Kanghi Gali in Gokulpura. “When there’s no water to drink or cook meals, how do you think would people living on upper storeys clean up toilets?”

According to Sudhir Gupta, another social activist, the public toilets built along the roads are simply unusable as most of them are poorly maintained.

Shivani Chaturvedi, a gynaecologist, warns that bad toilet habits will lead to many ailments among women.

“Times have changed. Agra is no more a rural society and people should prepare themselves to change their attitudes and habits,” she counselled.

An international tourist destination, Agra is now visited by millions of tourists every year. The city needs at least one properly maintained public toilet every kilometre, say experts.

Municipal commissioner Vinay Shankar Pandey told IANS: “We are doing our best. More safai karamcharis (municipal cleaners) have been put on the job. There is regular cleaning and we will ensure that public toilets are properly maintained.”

(Brij Khandelwal can be contacted at brij.k@ians.in)

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