M Ward


The commonest solution proposed for the sanitation crisis in slums by the state, the public toilet, has proved unsafe while solutions assembled by people are denied official sanction and support in M Ward. Incidences of public toilet floors collapsing and people losing their lives by falling into the septic tanks below have become a recurrent phenomenon. The everyday act of relieving oneself now involves the risk of losing one’s life. ‘Death by toilet‘ complicates the dominant understanding of ‘safe’ sanitation.

Public toilet collapse in Mandala. Three men lost their lives while waiting for their turn to use the toilet. The toilet’s floor slab collapsed, and the men fell into the septic tank below

The public toilet infrastructure in M ward is sketchy. A 2015-16 study examining access to sanitation infrastructure in the slum settlements in the ward found that each toilet seat in some areas served as many as 190 users on average. In comparison, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan norms are 25 persons per seat for women and 35 for men. The high ratio of toilet users implies a waiting time of four hours at peak time and indicates an overburdened infrastructure.

Access to the Toilets: Distance to toilet being less than or equal to 250 metres (light blue circles) and the population in the settlement which can be covered using the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan norm of 25 persons per toilet seat (dark blue circles).

For a settlement to be declared Open Defecation Free (ODF), Swachh Bharat Abhiyan guidelines require access to a toilet within a 500-metre distance for every household.

Capacity per toilet seat as per laws:

Average user per seat


Average toilet block in surveyed areas

10 Seats for men

10 Seats for women

Density Map shows regions not covered by existing toilet blocks.

Open defecation is a function of the non‑availability of toilets.

The public toilet is one of the ways in which violence becomes part of the everyday life of the poor, especially poor women. Political representatives, contractors at various scales, and public building agencies perpetuate a cycle where the construction of toilets is a demand in every election. Contractors who maintain toilets make significant amounts of money while the actual maintenance is poor. Ultimately, using broken toilets that demand constant repair and rebuilding becomes an unsafe proposition.

A closed public toilet built by the local Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA)

The poor are often portrayed as wanting to defecate in the open and hence requiring behavioural change. However, in M Ward we see communities making great efforts to get toilet facilities. Maharashtra Nagar does not have a public toilet at all. So, women in the transit camp there have come together to make toilets out of tarpaulin sheets. The enclosures protect them from sexual harassment, including from being photographed.

In the more settled slums of M Ward, like Cheetah Camp, many households have been waiting for permission to build toilets within their homes for over three years. A project for the construction of a sewer line for Cheetah Camp has been pending for ten years because of bureaucratic hurdles. As a consequence Cheetah Camp which was developed as a relocation site in 1976 - over forty years ago - has to depend on the ‘safety’ of public toilets.

Makeshift toilets in Transit Camp Maharashtra Nagar

Can people then be defaulted for building toilets in their homes ‘informally’? They continue to build on their knowledge of consolidating settlements and use multiple arrangements of excreta management. Thus, several lanes in Cheetah Camp have clean toilets inside homes and involve elaborate ‘arrangements’ between residents and neighbours.

Newly built public toilet in Cheetah Camp

What does ‘safe’ sanitation mean in this context? A denial of permissions to construct toilets on techno-legal grounds? A lack of investment and research into possible options for home-based sanitation? A perpetuation of a vote-yielding and corrupt practice of public toilet construction and operation? The regular recurrence of ‘death by toilet’? When the city is being remade in multifarious ways why is the issue of accessible sanitation being neglected?



Nala Sopara