Inclusive public sanitation seems to be taking hesitant steps in Manipur. As you walk down the roughly three-kilometre stretch of Indo-Myanmar Road from Raj Bhavan towards Khoyathong, you can see mobile bio toilets installed along the pavement facing Kangla Fort. Three sets of three toilet units each have been installed at different points along this arterial road in the heart of Imphal city. Each set also has a fourth unit for maintenance and equipment storage.
The toilets were inaugurated by Thounaojam Shyamkumar, Municipal Administration, Housing and Urban Development (MAHUD) and Town Planning Minister, Government of Manipur on January 5, 2018. To begin with, the toilets were open for use only on Saturdays and Sundays, the two days when the Night Plaza takes place. But after two months, they were opened for use round the clock on all days. The initial usage charge of 10 rupees has been halved to five rupees, which is comparable to the charge in other toilets in Imphal.
Apart from being the first of their kind to be put up in Manipur, what is notable about these toilets is that there is no gender marker on any of these toilets (see main photograph). This means that at least on the face of it there is no bar on anyone using any of the toilets irrespective of their gender. Gender neutral toilets are one among the demands of transgender activists to make public sanitation inclusive.
Of course, availability does not automatically mean accessibility. One obvious problem with these toilets is that they are difficult, even impossible to access for people with physical disabilities. There is also the question of toilet design – post-operative transsexual women may need commodes designed differently for urination. Finally, what about cleanliness? Kenny Canchipur, a transgender woman shared, “The toilet is accessible to transgender people. I’ve used the toilet once but it wasn’t neat and clean.”
Access to sanitation cannot be denied to any human being, but transgender people across the world face barriers in accessing public toilets because of shame, being mocked and bullied, and location of toilets in inappropriate and inconvenient spaces. In terms of location, these new mobile bio toilets seem to be in the right place. Some thought has also gone in their positioning. They are placed with their back to the road, offering some level of privacy to the users.
Some queer community members have raised the question whether it was a conscious decision on the part of the government to have made the toilets gender neutral. Nowhere in the news reports on the inauguration of the toilets has it been mentioned that the government had transgender people in mind while deciding to install three toilets in each set.
However, the benefit of doubt could be given to the government. Symal Moirangthem, Assistant Commissioner, Imphal Municipal Council said, “These toilets are open to all. There’s no gender bias. We can simply call them gender neutral toilets. Transgender people also can use the toilets. If they want to have separate toilets, they can write an application to the Municipal Commissioner, Imphal Municipal Council.”
Moreover, the government has shown positive intent on inclusive sanitation earlier as well. Last year, during the annual Sangai Festival, separate toilets for transgender people were set up at some of the festival sites in Imphal. These were set up by the Department of Tourism, Government of Manipur after transgender women’s collective All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association (AMaNA) submitted a proposal and carried out persistent negotiations. This was possibly the first such effort at inclusive sanitation in Manipur since the remarkable Supreme Court NALSA verdict on transgender citizenship rights in April 2014.
Manda Chiru, a transgender woman who accessed the toilet at one of the festival sites said, “I’m very glad that a toilet was reserved for us in this big festival. But some boys came after us and watched us while we were entering the toilet. This made us uncomfortable, but it was a good initiative. At least we were given some value in society.”
As the photograph above shows, the toilets at the Sangai Festival sites carried a transgender symbol as a gender marker. But this symbol has not become popular among the transgender communities in Manipur because of its confusing imagery.
Around the same time as the Sangai Festival last year, Santa Khurai, Secretary of AMaNA started another dialogue with officials of the Swachh Bharat Mission in Manipur to construct a separate toilet for transgender people near Khurai Lamlong Bazar. There has been no progress on this front so far. The photograph below shows the site where the toilet could be set up.
There have been other less visible inclusive sanitation initiatives as well in the non-government or private sector in Manipur. Information technology firm MOBIMP made all their toilets gender neutral last year after having participated in an advocacy project on promotion of economic inclusion for gender and sexual minorities (see project details in inset at the start of the article). Prasenjit Laikangbam, Director, MOBIMP said, “We’re opening our doors to all individuals who deserve and fulfil the criteria given for the posts in our company. All people, whether or not in the gender binary, are welcome to our firm.”
Accent & Allied Infotech, a leading vocational training centre in Manipur and also a participant in the economic inclusion advocacy project mentioned earlier, decided to allot one of their three toilets for transgender people as per need. This was done parallel to all their training courses being made transgender inclusive as against previous attempts to run special courses exclusively for transgender people.
Urmila Chongtham, Counsellor, Accent & Allied Infotech said, “Last year in June we published newspaper advertisements announcing our courses for the new term. We included a note on inclusion of transgender community in all the courses as well as the offer of separate washrooms. No one from the community has been admitted since then, but if anyone from the community comes to learn any course in this institution, we’ll try to make them comfortable with us and a toilet will be reserved for them.”
These initiatives are indeed welcome but there is no room for complacency. Thoibi, a 46 years old transgender man who lives in a village on the outskirts of Imphal, narrates his experience in a blog story in Rainbow Manipur | Inclusive Manipur: “This might sound weird to other people, but to me this is a genuine feeling. For example, when I go to a hospital to get treatment for myself or someone close to me, just the thought of standing in the queue for OPD tickets makes me want to forget about whatever illness or pain I or my family member has, and run away instead . . . It’s the same in the case of toilets in public facilities such as hospitals, airports, markets and educational institutions where there are toilets marked only ‘Men’ and ‘Women’. If I go into the men’s toilet, I find it awkward seeing all the men peeing there. But when I go into a women’s toilet, it’s the same. Many a times, I hold myself from urinating till I reach home, no matter how strong the urge is. Sometimes I wonder whether this has contributed to the frequent occurrence of stones in my kidney.”
Thoibi’s experience sums up the larger picture quite accurately. One hopes that inclusive sanitation efforts will fast become far numerous and undertaken systematically with universal design in Manipur. The need is for a policy blueprint and action plan inspired by the Supreme Court NALSA judgement to ensure that inclusive public sanitation becomes widespread and does not remain subject to well intentioned but ad hoc efforts.
Read article Challenges for Transgender-inclusive Sanitation in India by Durba Biswas in the Economic and Political Weekly, May 2019 issue where Bonita Pebam’s article in Varta has been cited as a reference – Editor.
Read article in Waterlines journal on transgender inclusive sanitation initiatives in India and Nepal. This article includes a mention of the advocacy undertaken by transgender community groups in Manipur to make public sanitation facilities better accessible to transgender persons. See also article Toilets: Inclusive, Safe and Universally Designed published in the December 2017 issue of Varta – Editor.
Visit this page for more details on the Varta Community Reporters Training and Citizen Journalism Programme – Editor.
About the main photo: One of the three sets of mobile bio toilets set up on Indo-Myanmar Road in Imphal. Each set has three toilet units and one maintenance and storage unit. The materials used for the structure of the toilets seem to be mainly steel and plastic. The toilets have a portable septic tank and a water reservoir on the top. Specific bacteria in the septic tank help to convert human waste into an odourless liquid that can be removed safely using a special machine, and then recycled for irrigation in gardens. The toilets do not need any sewage connection. All photo credits: Bonita Pebam