While men traditionally have been able to relieve themselves either in public or at toilets in allies, these spaces have been extremely dangerous for women to occupy, thus leading to more pressure on women to stay at home – where they can remain “secure”.

A stride towards making women more comfortable in public spaces was made by Akshat Gupta with his wife, Hilde Gupta and Keith Mascarenhas of Samatech Foundation. They employed a group of Norwegian volunteers, once drug addicts, at Mumbai central to design a women’s washroom. This toilet was made taking into consideration the needs and interests of women. It boasts of state of the art facilities like a changing room, a pump room, a childcare station and seven lavatories – all of which are energy-efficient vacuum toilets. Additionally, actor Akshay Kumar in order to promote access to women’s sanitation has installed a sanitary napkin vending machine too.

Samatech Foundation

We had the chance to interview Keith Mascarenhas about what inspired this initiative, the process and what they hope to achieve:

What inspired you to put this together? How did you conceive of this?

Well… I’ve been childhood friends with Akshat, but we only thought of this 4 years ago. It became especially relevant during the Ganesh visarjan festival where open pits were overflowing with sewage. We see ourselves as Mumbaikars it’s our city.  We needed to do something about it the sewage and situation for women.

Can you tell us how you conceived of this? What was the process?

My partner, Akshat’s wife Hilde is from Norway, and on their annual trip there through Hilde’s connections they had a discussion with vacuum toilet company, that built vacuum-based toilets, similar to the ones found in aircraft. They were immediately inspired and got the Norwegian team on-board to do a project like this in India.

Mumbai Central's First Women's Loos
Samatech Foundation

On their return we spent a whole year, getting interns from IIT to create research on the levels of sanitation across Mumbai, access to toilets for women and the quality of these facilities. We then started approaching municipality about vacuum tech. It took them about a year to agree and get comfortable with this new technology. To test our model out they gave us a project to create loos at ban Ganga slum area. The challenge faced there was that it was on the sea face area, that means the slums were below the coast line so it’s nearly impossible to connect to a system as it works against gravity. Since our model doesn’t depend on gravity we were able to install a four-seater toilet block and worked with the municipality to do so. I learned a lot about the slum community as I was the liaison between them and govt. I had to convince them it was going to be clean and good quality, eventually, I gained their trust and made them feel like stakeholders in the project.

We discovered that community involvement is key.

Can you explain to us what makes this vacuum toilet more efficient and how is it feasible? How can it be maintained?

It’s very simple. The water consumption in a vacuum toilet system is 0.8 litres per each flush as compared to a whopping 8-10 litres flush on the average toilet. The difference is that we use air pressure in place of water pressure to transfer the sewage… Also, air is free so why not use it! (chuckles).

This vacuum system consumes 90% less water and thus adds less fresh water to the sewage material, this makes less material for transporting and makes the process easier and more efficient.

Additionally, we don’t need gravity to move sewage in vacuum systems. About maintenance? Well, that is important, so we involved local residents, they had to pay a minimum fee it gives them a key. They then feel ownership and responsibility towards the toilets and take it upon themselves to keep it clean. They keep their own cleaning materials there as well.

Norwegian reformed addicts flying to India to build toilets for women?

Akshat’s wife Hilde reached out to Alexandra Madin, a man who runs a program to rehabilitate ex-cons and addicts he teaches them yoga in an attempt to put them back into mainstream society. Madin wanted to bring them to India in order to forget about themselves and their experiences and focus their energy on a world issue, like this one. The ex-addicts stayed in a simple lodge and practiced yoga from 6-9 am and then worked on the laboratory site from 10-6 pm every day for over a month.

Mumbai Central's First Women's Loos
Samatech Foundation

What do you hope to achieve with this initiative?

Safety and accessibility for women, the toilets are in Tulsiwadi, women can access it from the road and park. To ensure the safety of the women, the toilets are 5 ft. away from police chowki where there is assured security 24/7 security day and night.

What’s next for you? What would be your message to the youth regarding women in public spaces?

The Indian youth today cannot look at older people to fix problems, it’s not upon elders, it is about us and improving our city for our communities. Each step taken improves our city, not online activism. We should not leave it to municipalities government bodies. It is important to take charge.

Akansha Gupta is an intern with SheThePeople.TV

Email us at connect@shethepeople.tv