At the end of January, a refurbished bus was the centre of attention in Sonajhuri haat—a crafts hub—on the Bolpur-Santiniketan road in West Bengal. Passers-by were taking photographs of the upcycled vehicle, which had been converted into a washroom for travellers.
This pilot project, the outcome of a memorandum of understanding between a self-help group (SHG), Bolpur Mahila Mahasangha, and a Raipur-based startup, Eloo, has been in the works since November and is likely to be inaugurated officially by early March, soon after municipal elections.
It’s not the first in the country but it’s a much needed intervention. The women’s section on the bus has three washrooms and one breastfeeding/changing room while the “gender neutral section” has a toilet, a bathing area and hot water facility. The front section, leading to the washrooms, has a pantry that offers packaged water and light refreshments, as well as space for an ATM. Expansion of the project will be determined by the response.
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There’s no arguing that women travellers do need such facilities. According to a 2016 survey by HolidayIQ, an Indian travel community, 98% of women wanted more and better toilets on highways. In 2016, Bengaluru-based activist N.V. Vasudeva Sharma started a petition on Change.org to demand clean highway toilets for women. The petition closed after garnering 218,003 supporters. A 2019 online survey by the women’s empowerment organisation Pinkishe and the feminine hygiene company Sanfe stated that 90% of women find “public washrooms in the outdoor environment, be it the workplace, shopping malls or hotels, are not clean or suitable to use in the country”.
Most avoid public toilets. “I dread long road journeys now. I can’t bear to use the dirty washrooms in petrol pumps on the highways. Most travels end in severe stomach cramps and I have also suffered from bacterial infections as a result of holding urine in,” says Debjani Mazumdar, a Kolkata-based communications professional.
It’s a problem Eloo founder Diptendu Roy’s girlfriend (now wife) faced when they were travelling in Chhattisgarh in 2018 as collaborators on CGNet Swara, a voice-based online portal that reports local news in Gondi by the people living in Chhattisgarh’s forests and collects stories from the tribes there. “Especially in southern Chhattisgarh, the road is managed by the government but the surrounding areas are threatened by Naxal groups. When my girlfriend and I were travelling through the region, going to a small jhopdi (hut) to urinate was the only option for her. There are no proper pit stops on the highway with sanitation facilities,” says Roy, an engineer by training.
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He started speaking to dhaba (roadside eatery) owners, petrol pump managers and women colleagues. He did a survey on social media as well. “I found out that women don’t eat or drink anything on the road as they don’t know where the next clean toilet will be available. The dhaba owners were not paying attention to this issue as business was roaring for them. They said, itna saaf safai karne ki kya zaroorat hai (what’s the need for such cleanliness)?” They even felt that if they upgraded toilet facilities, travellers might think theirs was an expensive establishment and not stay on for snacks.
His first thought was to build facilities, while SHGs could offer snacks and refreshments nearby. “I tried refurbishing an old toilet in Konda village in Bastar in 2019. This was part of a 10-day pilot project with the local administration. Right next to it, women from an SHG started selling tea and snacks. Their daily income went up from ₹300 to ₹2,500-3,200 on most days,” says Roy.
Then his eyes fell on disused buses and shipping containers. He began thinking of how these could be used. Just when he was ready, though, the nationwide lockdown in March 2020 forced him to return to his home-town, near Bolpur. “As I was roaming around in Sonajhuri haat, I realised that this was a huge tourist attraction. But there was no washroom within miles,” he says.
He discussed the idea with Sutanuka Chakraborty from the district rural development cell. As a woman, she could relate to the concept, and pushed the idea to the Birbhum district administration and the Bolpur Mahila Mahasangha. “Under the Mission Nirmal Bangla scheme, the district administration had given us funds for women’s hygiene and sanitation projects,” says Yasmin Sultana, a leader at the SHG, which works with around 35,000 women in the areas of sanitary pad manufacture, handicrafts, and making a nutrimix (of lentils, jaggery, wheat, etc.) for anganwadis under the Integrated Child Development Services programme.
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They agreed to collaborate. “While Eloo would refurbish old buses and do capacity- building, we will manage the mobile women’s corner and set up refreshment centres, and more,” she explains. Around 20 people from Eloo will be involved in upcycling buses, while five leaders from the SHG are guiding the project. One bus will take two months to be refurbished, at a cost of ₹17.7 lakh each. The amount, from Mission Nirmal Bangla, was given to the Bolpur Mahasangha. Eloo’s task is to create the facilities, train the SHG members and help run the project. The team has, for instance, developed IoT (Internet of Things) based sensors to track maintenance.
There have been initiatives in Maharashtra and Kerala too. An August 2021 news report mentions a “Ti bus”, or a restroom in a decommissioned bus, in Pune; 12 such buses had been refurbished into restrooms by the company SaraPlast. In 2020, the Kerala government announced the “Take a Break” project to set up community sanitary complexes. A January article in The Times Of India mentioned Woloo, a tech-enabled social venture which has partnered with 1,200 washrooms across Mumbai to guide women to the nearest facility and provide “hygiene dignity”.
Many of these initiatives are in urban neighbourhoods. The Eloo project is not. “This is a small step in making women travellers on the highway comfortable,” says Roy.