The privilege of toilet ‘ownership’

It is fascinating how privilege works. And I say this with both a sense of disgust and irony, since in many ways it does reflect on me indirectly if not directly, just from the simple fact that I am, part of this society.

In a departure from the usual ambit of this column, I am not going to talk about cities. It is easy to deflect and distance deep-rooted issues and problems by looking at large pictures. By looking at cityscapes, geographies and regions, the citizen and its individual agency gets suffused into an amorphous whole, that can neither be identified or recognised, and most importantly, held accountable. So this time we are zooming in, on the place I call home.

If you live in the the gentrified periphery of Mehrauli that overlooks the Mehrauli Archeological park, that is home to celebrated designers, artists, architects, armed forces veterans, directors of multinationals, and holders of national trusts, cultural icons etc, please proceed with caution.

Located on the edge of Mehrauli, overlooking the very picturesque Mehrauli Archeological Park, a 64-acre green area, dotted with heritage structures that span possibly 1000 years of history, are some large apartment buildings. Build after aggregating smaller plots, and with reasonably good access from quest road that passes the Dadabari Jain Mandi, these apartments are home to a very swish set of people unlike the much more working class and lower middle class population of the urban village.

The apartment buildings, barring Tanishque and Nakshatra, go by names that are one of many combinations of the words Green, Qutab, Park, View and Royal — and prove to be quite the logistics nightmare for the various delivery services; as if Mehrauli’s labyrinth of gullies wasn’t enough, there’s Green View, Qutab View, Qutab Green, Park View… you get the drift. But I digress.

I live in one of these apartment blocks on rent, and have been for the past 10 years. A long enough time to formulate a reasonably accurate commentary on the happenings and joys of living here, in what the Municipal Corporation of Delhi calls Lal-Dora areas — official terminology for “areas we couldn’t be bothered dealing with”. The apartments here are owned by spectacular gentry — ADCs to Prime Ministers, National Award winning photographers and artists, best-selling authors, politicians and municipal officers. The apartments I live in is a block of 64 flats — 16 to a floor and a ground floor of parking space, around a central courtyard.

To keep an establishment like this going needs staff. The building employs two guards on 12-hour shifts, one cleaning person and an overall manager to handle water supply, oversee maintenance and general everyday running of the building. That’s a staff of 4 people permanently employed not to mention domestic help for the 64 flats, drivers, the morning car-cleaners and dog-walkers. That is a lot of people without even trying to account for delivery boys.

And the building does not have a single toilet for all these people. NOT ONE! When they need to deal with nature’s calls, they cross the road, walk through a small disputed encroachment that is a parking lot, then find their way into the archeological park to relieve themselves in the cover of the woods.

In 10 years, I have not seen this change. At one point there was an attempt to build a small toilet, a move that was vociferously and violently objected to. While a group of residents were all in favour of allocating personal funds, and space for the same, rules were cited, voices were raised and there were even threats of violence if the work continued, since a large number of the residents objected to the location of the toilet and most of all the fact that the proposal did not take every resident’s personal opinion into consideration. Work was stalled, to be commenced once a consensus was reached.

Anyone familiar with the workings of local politics and power equations would easily guess the outcome. This was an incident of over three years ago. In the ensuing more than 36 months since then, no consensus has been reached — and of course, no toilet has been built.

And then we had the pandemic and the lockdowns. Where the staff of the building were also locked in when our block of flats had over 15 people test positive , including myself, in the Delta Phase of the pandemic. Yes the staff of this building have been through the pandemic without a toilet. I’m not going to get into the details of how that worked for them, however miserably it did.

My question is something quite different really — do we as privileged members of society believe it is our right to deny decent and respectable working conditions to people who rely on us to pay their wages? And how do we go about living our fancy daily lives with elan, when we cannot even do the simplest of things and respect the human beings we work and interact with on a daily basis?

It bothers me.

Like the separate cups for drivers and maids, the refusal to let them use toilets in our houses, the demand that they leave their footwear outside when working. Caste practices carefully masked as culture and hygiene concerns — and utterly disgusting.

We can look at this refusal to provide a toilet as an isolated instance, and respond that it does not happen in our spaces, and our housing societies. To me, however, the fact that it can happen in one place, and without any issue with the owners, tenants or the working staff, is a huge comment on our social structures and exploitation of privilege that is an everyday experience for the less fortunate.

You might be a millionaire who can holiday in London and New York and travel the world, as many of the owners in these buildings do, even own Rs 20 lakh BMW motorcycles and premium cars — but if you have issue with a toilet for a building’s security guard, what kind of human being are you?

Henri Fanthome, an architect who trained at the SPA, lives and works out of Mehrauli, Delhi and writes about design and urban spaces

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#privilege #toilet #ownership

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