Access to clean and functional toilets is a basic need of every human being. In Ladakh, a family might not have a bedroom or a separateroom for a guest, but a must have in a Ladakhi householdis the traditional compost toilet. This is mainly due to the fact that their forefathers understood the essence of environmental hygiene and sustainability when a new house was built.
The composted material from these toilets a valuable means of enriching soil to sustain agriculture and is still the only method for the disposal of human waste in every village in Ladakh.
But the big question which needs to be answered is where is the nearest public toilet in Leh town? One probably wouldn’t realize how scarce and how filthy they are until the time one needs to use it.
The Government has rolled out the ambitious “Swachh Bharat Mission” but even after more than two years of its launch, the campaign is yet to make an impact in Leh town. This is because despite having an ecologically sound system of managing human waste in place, Leh town is poorly equipped when it comes to public toilets.
The situation is exceptionally dismal for working and businesswomen around Leh market. Thinles Chorol, 35, founder president of Ladakh Women Welfare Network (LWWN) and senior guide says, “Clean and functional toilets are one of the basic needs of every person, however, when it comes to public toilets in Leh town, there are only a few western flush-based toilets in and around the market, but they are open only during the short summer months. Among those present, half are locked and half are poorly maintained.” She adds, “There are women shop keepers and vegetable sellers who literally have to shut their shops and run to their houses in order to relieve themselves. There are also women whoconfess of open defecation- on the streets and alleys simply because they have no choice.”
Absence of public toilets for women can have serious consequences to their health as well. For example, pregnant women and women who suffer from diabetes have to visit toilets frequently.Lack of access to public toilets also puts women at risk of dehydration, yet at the same time it forces them to hold their bladders and bowels and makes them prone to urinary infections.
Ms. Kunzang Dolma, 43, from Nubra says, “I try to drink as little tea or water as possible when I have to go to the market because it is difficult to find toilets and those that are there are mostly in a deplorable state. This problem gets worse during winter because all the public toilets around the market are closed”.
The Ladakhi traditional compost toilet has served the people, land and agriculture well for centuries and is based on the concept that human ‘waste’ is not waste at all, since it is recycled into compost for use on agricultural fields. Another advantage of traditional compost toilet is that no fresh water is consumed or polluted in the process, and only natural materials are used to mix with the feces and urine.
Ms. Tsewang Dolma, 62, President Ladakh Buddhist Association Women Wing says “Leh town is a miserable place when it comes to public toilets for women, and it’sbeen like this for long. However, now it is high time we should all seriously do something about this. One easy and sustainable step is to revive our traditional methods of managing human waste. The traditional practice not only helps maintain the nutritive value of the soil but it also helps us save water, which is a precious commodity in a place such as Ladakh.”
Mr. Riaz Ahmad, 66, President Merchant Association states, “There is no local public toilet particularly around Leh market and one of the reasons could be a lack of enough space”.
“Generally public toilets are in a miserable condition in Leh town and when we look at who among the two sexes suffers the most because of inadequate and poor access to public toilets, it is always the women. This is because women need more privacy than men,”says DorjeyAngchuk, 46. When asked what does he think the administration should do?Dorjey was quick to add,”The government should build public toilets near major hubs around Leh town such as the monastery, mosque, taxi stand, bus stand, complexes, etc. but at the same time transfer the onus of maintenance and management to the respective bodies with strict regulations. For example, the toilets built in the vicinity of the taxi standshould be managed by the Ladakh Taxi Operator Union, and those around the mosque and monastery should be taken care of by the respective religious groups.”
A vegetable seller at New Bus Stand,Ms. Rigzin Dolma, 64,says, “Although there are public toilets at the bus stand but most of them are poorly maintained and the ladies toilet has not been functioning since last year. Inadequate and poorly maintained toilets are a great inconvenience especially for women and tourists”. With a sigh, Rigzin says sheis embarrassed when tourists come to her looking for toilets. “I particularly feel sorry for female tourists because being a woman I can empathize with their urgency of finding a clean and functional toilet.”
Having to defecate in the open in public places just because there isn’t any public toilet close by is a great indignity for women because they are robbed of their privacy. While responding to nature’s call in the open, hooligans and miscreants stalk women with cheap comments; they are often sexually assaulted and there is also the danger of stray dogs attacking them, especially during night. This puts women’s health and safety at great risk.
It is certainly time for someone to come forward and make life convenient, especially for the women of Leh town as soon as possible.