A kid in shorts is running like crazy between shacks, down tiny alleys. He hasn’t stolen anything; he is not being chased; he is desperate for the toilet.
The scene takes place in Nehru Nagar, a slum in Mumbai, India, where there are 100 toilet seats for 45,000 people. But it could have been in Tondo, Manila, or Kibera, Nairobi. Slums and shantytowns are everywhere. They already house 1 billion people, and 100,000 more move in every day. Between 1989 and 1999, 85 percent of Kenya’s population growth was in its slums.
Cities couldn’t function without sanitation. The “sanitary city,” as historians call it, provides a living environment that successfully separates humans from potentially toxic waste. This doesn’t applyto slums. Authorities don’t want to lay sewer lines that may imply that slum-dwellers – usually illegal squatters – have property rights. Slums must take care of themselves.
Some residents build “hanging latrines,” often nothing more than two planks elevated over a drain or beach. Others have toilets connected only to an open drain. Community-run public toilets are the best bet: Families join up to a membership scheme and pay a monthly fee of 25 rupees (US$0.50). The income pays for staff to keep the toilet clean, and for extras: some have installed computer rooms on their upstairs floor; some have classrooms; and at least one has a fish tank to entice customers.
But our kid’s parents didn’t want to sign up. They had school fees to pay; rice to buy. Their money was busy. So his run ends on the side of the airport express road, where he squats and defecates in front of the morning traffic, adding his personal contribution to the 2.5 million kilograms of shit left every day on Mumbai’s streets.