Thursday, October 10, 2013

Toilet Economics

At the outset, no this is not a post about toilet humour, nor am I going to make crass jokes or trash economics, despite the mess the world is in even today. I have an elementary knowledge of the subject and all figures and facts in this article are either from Google or my own experience.

I had been thinking about this post for a long time and the subject matter can be distilled thus : Is it proper to charge a fee, however small, for almost every public toilet ? Especially if it's a well to do, cold climate, Western country.

Such as is the case in the Netherlands. Again, nothing against the Dutch, but I will post a Dutch copy, thanks to Google Translate, so that Dutch speakers can understand my views better.

I believe the need for public toilet facilities is something which is generally agreed upon. Their need is felt even more keenly if the climate is wet and cold, more so if the person in question is a female. I am an Indian male and as is the case, unfortunately, with almost all Indian males anywhere in India, I usually tuck into some alley way or behind a tree to relieve myself. It's not the right thing to do and harms public property but given the paucity of sufficient and more importantly clean options in a country of more than 1.2 billion people, there is simply no other option. Again, I believe the discomfort felt by women would be much more but being a man, I will speak for my kind here. Many people don't even bother hiding themselves from the public eye when they are engaged in such an act. As I will relate later, turns out it also happens in the Netherlands too.

Yes, there is Sulabh Shauchalaya, but how many toilets ? The figures below are from the home page of Sulabh as of 10th Oct. 2013.

1.2 million - Sulabh household toilets constructed
54 million - Government toilets constructed based on Sulabh design
8,000+ - Sulabh community toilet blocks
640 - Towns made scavenging free
10.5 million - People using toilets based on Sulabh design daily
Impressive figures, at least they achieved something, but India has more than 1.2 billion souls. Almost half of them living in crowded urban areas. So a figure of 600 million vs the 10.5 million who are using toilets ?
Really long way to go.
Again there is the money factor. How many people can afford to pay for a piss or a poo ? More importantly, how many are willing to pay ? I will leave the numbers and analysis for people who are more aware of these figures, but I am sure you have seen people stepping out of high end cars to relieve themselves by the roadside.
The reason I brought up India when this entire article was prompted by the practices in the Netherlands is because I want to draw a comparision with all the countries I have lived in for a fair duration and leave it to the readers to gauge whether charging for almost every public toilet facility is justified.
The United States. Big country, rich country, yes they are still in shutdown mode as this article is being written and if they don't resolve the debt ceiling bit the whole world may be going along on a roller coaster ride, straight down. The US doesn't charge for public toilet facilities, at least not in any of the places I have been.
Singapore. Small country, a city actually, but really rich, lots of people. Draconian laws on littering. Public toilets in malls and MRT stations, free to use.
Canada. Great country, literally and metaphorically. Close cultural and economic ties with the US. They even have the same ISD code. The weather remains cold for the large part of the year. I guess you know what that means. They also don't charge for public toilets. There's in fact a sizeable, well maintained toilet complex in the heart of historic Quebec City. And I used it for free.
South Africa. Not even as big as India but the diversity of climates, geography, wildlife and culture puts it in a league of it's own. It's the largest economy in Africa, a member of the G20. Not as rich as the US, Canada or the Netherlands. It's in fact the smallest economy of the BRICS, but there are again no charges for using public toilets.
And now we come to the Netherlands.
The standard rate for using a public toilet in the Netherlands is 50 Euro cents. This is the charge levied by toilets, manual and automated, at every train station. Some toilets will be charged more or less than this amount.
What can 50 cents buy ?
A pack of chips.
A bar of chocolate.
A 500 ml drink.
Provided you know where to shop.
Buying power aside, let's say you really have to go, you don't have change or not enough change on you, if it's a manual toilet you can always try pushing a 5,10, maybe even a 50 euro note if you are desperate. What do you do if it's an automated toilet which only accepts coins ?
An automated toilet, and I saw them for the first time and so far only in the Netherlands, is a toilet whose almost every fixture is made up of stainless steel. Even the door is a steel door, once you get in, jets of water shoot at the WC, the toilet seat moves down automatically, and in 10-15 seconds, you are ready to let go. The door auto opens after 15 minutes or so but you can extend that time from the inside. And of course, while you are in, the people outside have to wait, or find some other option.
Automated toilets, neat right ? Right out of Star Trek.
Not quite.
Unfortunately human waste is not uniform in it's texture and make-up. I won't go into the details here but suffice to say that more often than not such toilets look and smell horrible. The manual toilets, in other words toilets where a human being checked the condition of the units from time to time have been all in a much better state then any automated toilet I have been to.
Probably the first pay toilet, manually maintained, I visited was the toilet complex near the entrance foyer of Rotterdam Centraal ( Dutch spelling ) station. I had to pay 50 cents but I can tell you that it was very well maintained.
How bad can automated toilets get ?
I alighted at Roosendal train station to catch the intercity to Antwerp, on a cloudy May day. While I was waiting for the train, Nature called and finding that I had sufficient change on me I slipped them into the slots of an automated toilet and went in.
And today I can tell you that I haven't seen a toilet in such an awful condition even in India.
The bowl was full of piss, excreta and toilet paper. It was jammed so much that the toilet seat didn't sit down properly. There was shit on the edge of the bowl and even some on the floor.
I feel my skin creep even thinking about it.
It was so ghastly, I pissed on the floor. Yes the floor, I would have vomitted or had a fit if I had to piss into that mess. I got out double quick, there was a guy hoping to use it after me. I told him in English "Don't go. It's horrible."
He took one look inside as the steel door closed and walked away.
What really pissed me on that occasion was, if you have to charge people to use toilets, why not maintain them ? Even if it's automated, would it really hurt to have someone check at least once a day, every day in the week, to ensure the units are running properly ? When I used that toilet, it wasn't even 12 pm, I think it must have been piling up for more than a day at least to be in that condition.
So what does charging for a toilet achieve ? One may say that it contributes towards the overall cost of maintaining the toilet, it's also possible that the charge keeps miscreants out who would otherwise deface and/or damage these facilities. I can understand the second point since almost none of the charged toilets I have been to, manual or automated, were defaced. Yes, even that horrible mess in Roosendal.
But the cost of maintenance ? Really ? Is it that expensive ? Even when the nation has an extensive drainage system ? The storm and drainage system of the Netherlands is one of the best, if not the best in the world. The Rijkswaterstaat which builds and maintains these facilities has achieved engineering marvels, the system is geared to handle a once in 10000 years storm.
Imagine 2012, the movie, something like that.
Yes, the protection doesn't come cheap and that's one of the reasons why taxes are so high. The Rijkswaterstaat is autonomous and also gets a share on every tax levied, can't grudge them that, they are the ones who stand between the Netherlands and the North Sea.
Before I go on, not all public toilets in this country are charged. Toilets in the office you would be working in or visit would be free to use. Toilets in trains, if they are not locked, are free to use. Toilets in Schiphol Plaza and on the Panorama terrace are very well maintained and free to use.
So one can say, if you are working or visiting an office, you are being economically productive. You are paying to ride the train and people from all over the world transit through Schiphol so levying a charge won't be good for the country's image.
Yes, wait till they step out of Schiphol.
Then I will give some other examples as well. There were mobile toilet blocks available during the Wereld Haven Dagen ( World Port Days ) held from the 6th to 8th September 2013 in Rotterdam. They were well maintained and free to use. Yes, no entry fees for visiting the fair, so you could walk in just for using the toilets and then leave. No economic value there.
There was also a free toilet block during the Drakenboot ( Dragon Boat ) race held in the Kralingse Plas, Rotterdam. Lots of visitors, no charge.
So, what gives ?
There's one place in the Netherlands where you will be charged 1 Euro if you only want to use the toilet, and not buy something in the restaurant in which the toilet is situated first.
The Afsluitdijk is a dam built on the open sea. It was completed in 1933, 80 years ago, and once completed it cut off the Zuyder Zee from the Wadden Sea. 32 kms long, this marvel of engineering was designed by a team led by Hendrik Lorentz, the Nobel Laureate in Physics whose mathematical work went a long way in providing the basis for Einstien's Special Theory of Relativity.
If you look at a map of the Netherlands, you will see a straight line joining two parts of the country. There is another line, a curved one, joining the cities of Enkhuizen and Lelystad south of that line but it's more often than not shown in maps. The Afsluitdijk stands against the open sea, without it that second line, the Houtribdijk and even the province of Flevoland, created after the Second World War, wouldn't have been possible.
There's a look out point, Het Monument, mid way on the Afsluitdijk, when I visited it, the cars came from all over the EU. I had an Uitsmitjer in the restuarant and had to use the toilet. In the toilet were notices in English, Dutch, French, German and Chinese as well explaining why 1 Euro would be charged for users who did not buy something in the restaurant first. It said that given the position of the Monument, all sewage was directed into a septic pit which is cleaned periodically. The 1 Euro fee goes towards the maintenance and operational costs of the sewage system.
So if you have a toilet, 16 kms from the nearest human establishments, on one side you have the Sea, on the other side a lake, 1000 sq. kms in size and with enough fish to provide a livelihood to many coastal towns and villages, 1 Euro is not a big deal, right ?
There's a cafe on the top of Table Mountain and at Cape Point in South Africa. These places with their toilets are situated in equally, if not more, inaccessible and ecologically fragile areas. South Africa is also not nearly as well of as the Netherlands, the crime and unemployment situations are also quite severe. Yet the toilets are not charged.
Why not ?
At this point I am tempted to think of the Dutch mercantile nature with a tendency to make a buck off anything, sometimes I wonder why Napoleon called England : a nation of shopkeepers, it may seem rude but I will give an example.
What would you say if you were charged 30 cents to use the toilet in a McDonalds outlet, in the biggest mall in Rotterdam, even if you were a customer ?
Weird ? Daylight Robbery ?
To be fair, things are also not so hunky dory even here. There was a report on BBC about a month back where it was shown that the Netherlands is feeling the same pinches and squeezes currently synonymous with Southern Europe.
But then, there is also a lot of unemployment. Rotterdam, despite being the economic nerve center, has the highest unemployment rates in the Netherlands. I have come to know that even for the 'unemployment benefit' of 400 Euros per month, people are expected to work. A lot of migrants pour into the Netherlands daily. Most of them from poor nations with little or no skills.
What I am getting at, in the spirit of the South Park episode, The Last of the Meheecans, is it so hard to hire people to maintain toilet facilities, especially if they have to be charged ? There's a guy with log tresses who plays the guitar outside Rotterdam Centraal. Yesterday I saw a guy who looked like he had nowhere to go, sitting aimlessly in the foyer of Rotterdam's Central Library near the Blaak station.
I don't have an issue paying for something it is well maintained but it's not possible to come up with the cash at the critical time when you need it. Should toilets accept cards then ? And what if you are not carrying cards as well ?
Earlier in this post I mentioned that people letting go in the open is not something peculiar to India, I have seen it in Rotterdam but the brazenness of the act, I haven't seen even in India.
A few weeks ago I saw a man pissing in the middle of Voorschoterlaan, Rotterdam. This is an upmarket area with it's own metro station and many boutique shops. The guy doing the act was white and he walked to his car after he was done.
I wonder how many people saw him in the act from the houses on both sides of the street. I wonder how frequent it is. I wonder would he have done the same if there was a toilet, even if it was not charged, in the vicinity.
I wrote this post to put forth my views on the need for adequate public toilet facilities which should not be charged. Especially if the taxes are in the range of 50% or more. I hope that Dutch citizens and people who are more aware than I am on this issue go through this share their views and think about it.
We should not be using our environment as a toilet. More than the only home we have got, it's also our Mother Earth.


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