When nature calls, you have to answer. But, finding a clean public restroom in India, irrespective of whether its a city or a village, is no mean feat. You either end up having an experience awful enough to feature in ‘Public Bathroom Horror Stories’, or you are forced to just hold it in till you are bursting at the seams.
If you are travelling and are worried about locating a clean public toilet, fret not. Among the plethora of apps jostling for space inside your smartphone, there’s one that will have you sending a silent note of thanks to its creators every time you click on it — it helps you locate the nearest public toilet and even tells you how clean it is!
The innovative app, called Swachh Bharat Toilet Locator, was pioneered by an IAS couple, Vipul Ujwal and Sonali Giri from Punjab.
In January 2015, Vipul Ujwal, the then municipal commissioner of Moga in Punjab, and his wife Sonali Giri, the then additional deputy commissioner of Faridkot in Punjab were visiting Delhi. While in Connaught Place, one of Delhi’s most frequented areas, Giri was unable to find a single clean washroom. And thus an idea was born. Ujwal says,
“My wife wanted to use the washroom and we simply couldn’t find one. That’s when it struck us that there is a need for the government to release an app which gives detailed information.”
For the next four months, the 2009 batch IAS couple developed an app to locate a public toilet, that also gave a cleanliness report based on user reviews. The couple also added some fairly advanced and helpful features that would provide information such as whether the toilet Indian or Western-style, free or paid, and whether it has additional features such as seats for the differently abled or the availability of sanitary pad dispensers. It also has a interface where user can rate public restrooms on hygiene, infrastructure and safety.
Working with Neeraj Sharma and Rajeev Mathur (batchmates from Institute of Management Studies (Bikaner) who pitched in with their expertise), the couple co-ordinated with municipal sanitary inspectors to map all the 600 toilets across urban centres in Punjab. The couple then approached the Union Urban Development Ministry which showed keen interest in adopting the app and asked them to upload at least 50,000 locations from across the country to make the app helpful for users.
In the Swachh Bharat Toilet Locator app, all listed toilets are physically verified with images attached to their descriptions. They have also been categorised for gender specific search. Ujwal says,
“If user ratings are bad or slide considerably, the app would flag these toilets to the respective urban local bodies, which will have to remedy the situation. The idea is to not only to locate but also improve the toilets, most of which are not maintained well.”
The app also encourages citizens to be more actively involved in realizing the dream of Swachh Bharat by being a volunteer, and help by physically verifying the toilets submitted by fellow citizens. So, if a toilet is dirty, or permanently closed, user feedback could help others avoid that property. Pretty much like a Zomato for toilets!
Today, the Swachh Bharat Toilet Locator app functions as an independent toilet locator app of the Ministry of Urban Development. The app will also be collaborating with the soon-to-be launched Google Toilet Locator, increasing its outreach manifold.
However, while the idea of having a public toilet locator is novel, its success will hinge on its effective implementation. Other than being a crucial factor in the Indian government’s plan for a Swachch Bharat, access to clean public toilets is also one of the most important rights of citizens. This makes it important that toilet locator apps don’t just focus on tracking public toilets, but also steadily work towards making them more hygienic and accessible.
As for the enterprising IAS couple, this isn’t the first time that they have come up with a unique initiative – they are also credited with the creation of the iVote app. Launched during the 2014 General Elections in Punjab, the app had several features such as directions to the one’s polling booth, information about contesting candidates, a comprehensive model code of conduct for ready reference and an easy complaint submission mechanism. Incidentally, the couple was honoured on National Voters Day, January 25, 2015, for iVote, and it was while they were in Delhi for the aforementioned event that the two hit upon the idea of developing the public toilets app!
Known for their perseverance, vision and attention to detail, this young IAS couple’s biggest strength is their dedication to the nation. It is due to innovative and pro-active officers like Vipul Ujwal and Sonali Giri that a positive change in Indian governance is finally rolling in. We wish them all the best in all their future endeavours.
This World Toilet Day, The Better India is supporting Lonwadi, a village in Maharashtra, to become open defecation free in just one month! The residents want to build a toilet in each home and secure a healthy, hygienic and dignified life for themselves. Please lend your support to the residents in their quest and help them get access to toilets, sanitation facilities and a healthy future like all of us.
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