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Mumbai sure is a city of dreams. From Vada pao, to Irani chai, to Cinema… everything here is dreamy. The sea link consumes you in its structural enormity and the magnificent sea, is a harbourer and a keeper of innumerable yearnings.  

Mumbai’s iconic Gateway of India stands tall.

But what happens when dreams concede and the reality takes over?

When one shifts from the skyscrapers towards desolation in the streets, there is a paradigm shift in the day to day mechanisms. The city’s metabolism flickers every few kilometres.

When I went to Mumbai to shoot a film for UN Women, I saw the Mumbai no one ever talks about. The film was for their program- Ending Violence Against Women. Under the umbrella of this program, what I went to cover was the abject lack of sanitation for working women in the public spaces… and how it leads to physical, economical and sexual threat to women. Moreover, how, it led to the genesis of a one of a kind campaign in Mumbai- Right to Pee.

I know, right to something as natural and trivial as peeing sounds weird. Lack of sanitation sounds like a problem the rural India goes through, right? A glitzy Mumbai going through sanitation issues seems hard to believe. But after learning the stories of working women there, the idea did not seem so benign to me.

The condition of community toilets in the sub-urban slum

In the urban public spaces in Mumbai, women represent 50% of the workforce, with little or no access to toilets in the workplace. These are the unorganized sector force that includes vegetable vendors, fisherwomen, rag pickers, roadside shopkeepers, and the like. But of course, it is not limited to just these women. Even the young girls and women who want to move freely in the city… everyone suffers here…

Hustling throughout the day to sell fishes, with no access to sanitation facilities

Mumbai, the Megacity or the World city that it is, has a perception of being very accommodating in nature. It is said that whoever comes here, gets immersed in its vastness and starts belonging. I thought that too. However, after seeing beyond the silver lining, I understood that not only has the city left a huge chunk of its inhabitants unattended, but have piled them on with a lot of bereavement. 

What meets the eye is dreamlike, but there’s a lot more beyond.

When one visits Mumbai, one expects that they will be shooting near the sea, or marine drive, taking picturesque and insta-worthy pictures… flaunting their cameras…

We were a team of three, from Delhi who found themselves at the bottom of a hilltop, in Mumbai, ready to hike up with all our equipments. First thing that we thought was that we could have easily gone to the hills near Delhi. Why come all the way to Mumbai to trek! But let me just put it this way. This is the life of documentaries- unpredictable, and full of startling surprises.

We were in Bharatnagar- in Chembur, which was one of our target areas to document the lack of civic amenities for women. I met Supriya there, a sweet girl in her teenage who had just passed her high school and wanted to study further. She was scared to go to the toilet she had in her neighbourhood. The toilet didn’t have a lock and she would often find herself in an unsafe position every time she had to go to the toilet. Not even worth mentioning the trauma of going to the toilet in the night.

The huge dumping ground of Govandi, which gave me a sense of Ganesh Gaitonde’s kingdom (giving a little context from Sacred Games for readers to understand how filthy yet rich that place was), was a total failure in terms of women safety and security. Mumtaz, a woman in her mid-30’s worked as a rag picker there. She barely managed to feed her family, given the pity amount that she earned picking the huge amounts of toxic waste. But it was not only her work that baffled me. When she told me that there were no toilets anywhere near the dumping ground where she could go and relieve herself during the day, I was surprised. I asked her what did she do if she had to pee. She told me that she holds on the entire day and goes to the toilet only when she is back home.

Mumtaz’s workplace.

I also spoke to women who were selling vegetables on the streets or fisherwomen about what they go through in terms of sanitation. They said it was either a whole day’s wait, or an extremely dirty toilet as an alternative. Ofcourse, after having to pay an amount.  

Team Carrot and Supriya Jan (Program Manager of the campaign) talking to the roadside vegetable vendors.

All of these problems prompted to a clarion call for action. And this led to the birth of the much sought after campaign of Right to Pee. Brainchild of the organization- CORO India (Committee of Resource Organization) based in Mumbai, they made sure that the problem of urban sanitation reaches out to the policymakers.

Key members discussing the campaign.

Mumtaz Shaikh, who rose from one of the poorest spectrum of the society to become the Right to Pee campaign spokesperson and later made to BBC’s 100 most inspiring women list of 2015- told me how she managed to keep going even after been laughed at and ridiculed of making out a campaign on women urination.

Mumtaz talking about the amount of ridicule she faced from men, particularly those in positions of power.

Supriya Jan, the Program Manager of this campaign told me there were 2839 free urinals for men in the city and none for the women. Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? However, after tonnes of to and fro discussions, signature campaigns and activism, they built the very first toilet for women near the Gateway of India, absolutely free of cost!

Toilet near Gateway of India set up as a result of the Right to Pee campaign

As a working woman myself, when I was listening to the stories of all these working women, I could completely relate and empathize with what they were saying. There have been times when I would find myself in a similar situation, with no better alternative in my hand.

Making this film was not just a professional exercise, but also became very personal and close to my heart. We forget that the cities that we live in, however big and fancy, has an underbelly where people live in miserable conditions. Maybe even worse than in villages. The post-modern, urban India also needs cleaning up and owning up to the mess.




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One Comment

  1. Sinchita

    True Vidheya. Wonderful 👍👍

    27th February 2020

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