On Tuesday, the South Delhi Municipal Corporation issued a notification that made it mandatory for all restaurants and hotels under its jurisdiction to allow any member of the public to use their toilets for a charge not higher than Rs 5 from April 1.

The civic body believes that this would allow the public to access over 3,500 toilets in prominent South Delhi areas that do not have adequate public toilets – boosting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat initiative. However, the order has not gone down well with restaurateurs. Usually, restaurants only allow customers to use their toilets. The order has led to a debate about the right to reserve admission into private property versus the right to access a toilet in a public place.

South Delhi is one of the most upmarket areas in New Delhi, and the civic body’s jurisdiction extends over several areas including the markets of Hauz Khas Village, Shahpur Jat, Sarojini Nagar, Lajpat Nagar and Saket.

In a press statement issued on Tuesday, the South Delhi Municipal Corporation, Delhi’s richest, said that Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal was behind the initiative. To enforce its order, the civic body will modify the provisions of the health trade licenses that such establishments must obtain from it in order to operate.

Said Sat Pal, consultant to South Delhi Municipal Corporation: “The amended provisions would demand that all new establishments apply [for health trade licences] only after making sure that they have a toilet, and [for] the existing ones to build new ones in case they do not have it [toilets] yet. And the facilities should be opened up for the general public.”

Though the municipal corporation is in the process of chalking out a complaint mechanism in case restaurants do not abide by the notification, it is unclear how it plans to enforce its orders given that access to facilities within restaurants, bars or pubs has always been more of a matter of class than rights. For instance, take two cases reported last year – one at a popular restaurant in Kolkata and another in the national capital. In both cases, the management of the enterprises refused to allow poorer people to enter their premises.

A grim reality

Senior officials of the South Delhi Municipal Corporation said that the civic body maintains over 1,000 toilets in areas under its jurisdiction, but these are inadequate for the population they are expected to cater to. In 2016-’17, the corporation opened 140 public convenience facilities across South district, which will be followed by another 200 by the end of the next financial year. The officials said that the subject of problems caused by the lack of toilets has often made it to several high-level meetings in the civic body.

Among others, the civic body’s order will have an impact on the enterprises in South Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village where several upmarket pubs, restaurants and cafes have opened over the past decade. Popularly referred to as HKV, it has the highest concentration of restaurants and pubs as compared to any other area in the South Delhi civic district.

Manju, a college student who is pursuing a degree in commerce through the University of Delhi’s School of Open Learning, supervises her mother’s tea and cigarette kiosk at the entrance of Hauz Khas Village. On Wednesday, when asked what she did when she needed to use the toilet, Manju pointed towards a secluded space in a nearby forested area where she, her sister, mother and many others have been going for years to relieve themselves. Manju was not aware of the municipal corporation’s notification. When told about it, she said that she had never been inside any of the restaurants in the vicinity, and that she would have to seek her father’s permission to use the toilet in any of those outlets.

Jessica, a young entrepreneur from Manipur, who owns a designer accessories shop in Hauz Khas Village, said that her outlet did not have a toilet but that she had an informal arrangement with her landlord that gave her employees and her access to the toilet in her landlord’s house.

“It is embarrassing when customers ask us if they could use our toilets, and we have to refuse,” she said. “Most of the shops in the area have no toilet facility. Only the restaurants have them. So I would say this is a good initiative which actually should have been taken up a long time ago.”

She added, “Not all shop owners in the area have such arrangements [with the landlord] and often find themselves in fix. Women are the worst sufferers.”

Hauz Khas village has a public toilet but most people who work in the area, including Manju and Jessica, said that they do not use it because it is dirty.

The situation regarding access to public toilets is similarly grim in Saket and Shahpur Jat, two other upmarket markets in South Delhi.

Matter of rights

Riyaaz Amlani, president of the National Restaurant Association of India, pointed out that providing public toilets was the job of civic bodies and the government.

“That does not mean that a civic body can force us to commit to such a service,” said Amlani, who runs several popular restaurants. “Most restaurants usually do not stop anyone looking out for a washroom or a glass of water. But that is supposed to be out of humanity and not under any guidelines.”

Amlani added: “The other question is of security – we are responsible for the safety and security of our clients. What if we lose our power to exercise control over admission of people in the property and later something untoward happens? Who shall be accountable for that? So far, we have only read the notification and are trying to arrange a meeting with the municipal body to discuss the matter at the earliest.”

Women suffer the most

A senior official who was part of a recent meeting on the subject of public toilets with the Lieutenant Governor admitted that women were the most affected by the lack of clean toilet facilities.

“While most men and children resort to public urination when they cannot find public toilets, women and persons with medical conditions land in terrible fix,” said the official. “The matter had to be addressed at some point.”

But how does the South civic body expect to implement its orders?

South Corporation consultant Sat Pal said that the civic body was in the process of chalking out an action plan.

Other than the maximum charge of Rs 5 that will allow restaurants and hotels to maintain the toilet facility, the civic body is considering – asking restaurants to put up a board outside their premises indicating that toilets were available for public use. The civic body is also considering starting a helpline number in which people can call and register complaints if they are denied the use of a toilet in a restaurant.

The agency is yet to specify the punishment if restaurants refuse to let any member of the public access their toilets. “But repeated offence may lead to cancellation of the health trade licence,” said Pal.