A toilet in Santhome, built in 1945
A toilet in Santhome, built in 1945

The Prime Minister has declared war on defecation in the open. Chennai has a long history of battling against what is euphemistically termed “public nuisance”, with the city and its Corporation invariably being on the losing side.

What is interesting is that by 1860, our city had 160 public latrines under the Conservancy Department of the Corporation. It was noted, however, that these were hardly used, people preferring the wide-open spaces. With the introduction of flushed latrines in houses in the early 1900s, these public conveniences were deemed unnecessary and their numbers came down. Not so the number of people continuing to commit nuisance in the open. None other than Mahatma Gandhi was to comment on this when he addressed the Council of the Madras Corporation on March 7, 1925:

“I am not a stranger to Madras. I have lived off and on several occasions in Madras, sufficiently long to enable me to study and understand the sanitation of your city; and it has always grieved me whenever I have walked through your streets early in the morning to see them disfigured… I cannot help remarking upon the condition of your streets because I think that more than any other city of India, the streets of Madras were at that time disfigured even by grown-up elderly men. It was a sight to which I must confess I was unused before I came to Madras, and often did I feel like taking a broom myself and cleaning up every nook and corner of the streets through which I passed.”

The number of public toilets was just 33 in 1942, of which 15 had been constructed only that year! The one on the Esplanade was said to be an architectural marvel, its features in harmony with “the more ambitious buildings in the neighbourhood”. Within five years however, the neighbourhood was not in harmony over the toilet, complaining furiously over the stench. It was the same everywhere else. Between poor maintenance and a general reluctance to use them, the toilets made no impact.

The Corporation in the 1940s, under Commissioners Pulla Reddy, J.P.L. Shenoy and C. Narasimham, carried on a publicity campaign against open defecation. Bore wells, overhead tanks and pump sets were installed, disinfectants and deodorants were supplied and dedicated staff were deployed at all times for cleaning the toilets. But public nuisance continued. The help of the police was sought and a patrol van rounding up offenders in the morning hours was a familiar sight till 1954 when the practice was discontinued.

The number of public toilets rose to 403 in 1967 and ten years later, the number was still 475 public conveniences and 52 urinals. The next step was the introduction of Sulabh Sauchalayas based on Dr Bindeswar Pathak’s designs in the 1970s. The Corporation’s website now says there are 905 public toilets of which 31 are the pay-and-use variety, the remaining being free. There is an ambitious plan to increase this to 2000.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated November 2, 2014 under the Hidden Histories column.