Recent census data found that more than half of Indian households lacked a toilet, a rate that has worsened in the past decade despite India's growing wealth. The lack of indoor toilets in India poses sanitation and health problems, but it also exposes a double standard that works against women.

Share story

MUMBAI, India — Men and women in India’s largest city, a congested, humanity-soaked metropolis of roughly 20 million residents, would seem bound by at least one common misery: far too many people sharing far too few toilets.

But there is a difference — unlike men, women often have to pay to urinate. Social advocates like Minu Gandhi have canvassed Mumbai for months, arguing that this disparity amounts to blatant discrimination and asking women to demand a right most of them never contemplated: the Right to Pee.

“We all feel this is a basic civic right,” Gandhi said, “a human right.”

India long has had a sanitation problem. Recent census data found that more than half of Indian households lacked a toilet, a rate that has worsened in the past decade despite India’s growing wealth, as slums and other substandard housing has proliferated in growing cities.

Most Read Nation & World Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Yet what is unique about the so-called Right to Pee campaign — a title coined by the media and that now appears to be on the verge of achieving some of its goals — is the argument that the bathroom in India is governed by a double standard.

Like men, women in villages often must urinate outdoors, in fields. Unlike men, women sometimes endure taunting and even sexual assault. Many rural women relieve themselves in small groups, before dawn, to protect against harassment.

In Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, millions of people depend on public toilets, usually in dark and filthy buildings that operate as male-controlled outposts. The municipal government provides 5,993 public toilets for men, compared with only 3,536 for women. Men have an additional 2,466 urinals. (A 2009 study found an even greater imbalance in New Delhi, the capital, with 1,534 public toilets for men and 132 for women.)

A male attendant almost always oversees these toilets, collecting fees. Petty corruption is rampant in India, and public toilets are no exception: Men must pay to use a toilet but can use urinals free (based on the premise that urinals, usually just a wall and a drainage trench, do not need water). But women regularly are charged to urinate, despite regulations saying they should not be.

“Even if you say you are only urinating, they say, ‘How do we know?’ ” said Yagna Parmar, another social activist involved in the campaign. “So they ask for money.”

At the northern rim of Mumbai, inside a slum known as Shivaji Nagar, at least 350,000 people — perhaps twice that many by some estimates — live pressed together beside one of the city’s largest dumps.

The exact number of public toilets is unclear, but the ratio by one estimate is no better than one for every 300 people. Women must adapt their daily routines: Many visit the bathroom early in the morning to avoid lines and leering. They avoid drinking much water. And they carry change.

The campaign began last year when a coalition of social advocates gathered from across the state of Maharashtra, which includes Mumbai. Organizers in each city chose different issues, including domestic violence and equal access to water. The Mumbai group considered campaigns on housing, water or sanitation — all big problems — before deciding on the Right to Pee.

“Initially, this was considered a little frivolous,” said Mumtaz Sheikh, one of the organizers. “But we told people, ‘No, this is an important issue, and we want to work on it.’ “

Municipal officials were willing to release statistics on the number of public toilets in the city but otherwise refused to comment, despite scores of requests made to three city departments.

The toilet fees might be considered nominal, ranging from 2 to 5 rupees (about 4 to 9 cents). Yet the poverty line in India is so low that the government recently defined the urban poor as those living on less than 29 rupees a day.

“It’s expensive for me,” Shubhangi Gamre said of the cost to visit the toilet. She lives in Shivaji Nagar and earns about $27 a month working in a drugstore. “It cuts into our food money. How can we afford everything?”

Perhaps the months of canvassing and campaigning will pay off. Last week, social advocates met with city officials who told them of new plans to build hundreds of public toilets for women across the city. Some local legislators now are vowing to build toilets for women in every one of their districts.

Nothing is official, and promises often do not become reality in Indian politics. But the activists feel momentum is in their favor.

“Of course it’s a good feeling,” said Supriya Sonar, a member of the campaign, saying the Right to Pee group now is lobbying for women to be hired in the proposed projects. “Our actual work starts now.”

New York Times writer

Sruthi Gottipati contributed

to this report.