Capital of Portable Toilets
Posted on: 21 Jan 2013
Mondays are not fun days any more. Till the end of December, when I used to write my Malayalam column Oridathoridathu, I used to look forward to Mondays, because that was when the new article was 'released'.
Normally it came out before I woke up in Geneva but sometime I had to wait till afternoon and occasionally I had to give a bit of prodding.
The real fun was after the article came out. In an hour or so, I would check and see how many 'share/likes' appeared and at the end of the day I would take tally of how many comments were there.
One hundred shares and more than three dozen comments were commonplace those days. Getting few hundred likes and more than fifty comments were not unusual. On a really good week, I had more than hundred comments even and at least one article went about 1000 shares/likes. Most of the comments were positive and it lifted my spirits to write another new article in spite of where I was and whatever other commitments I had.
How the mighty has fallen ?.
Since January 2013, when I started to write in English, life has not been the same anymore. There are not even fifty likes, comments are down to a trickle and most of them are negative or sympathetic at best. I am lucky that Mr Zuckerberg did not provide options for 'unlike'. But comments give me the idea.
Look at this one for example;
'Muralichetta...Please return to Malayalam. When you write in English you lose the flow and punch (the things we enjoyed most!). Your article in English is only informative, not entertaining :((('
'Your writing in malayalam was more interesting and funny to read and most of your readers like me do not understand English well!'
'I am sad and angry that you stopped writing in malayalam!!!GRHHHH!!!!!'
'welcome back sir, reading of history books in school classes were easier than this.. Murali sir, please write in Malayalam ..
as Gandhiji said,' Before you do anything ,stop and recall the face of the poorest most helpless man you have seen and ask your self 'is what I am about to do going to help him?'
please recall my face and write in malayalam...'
So the theme was consistent. My Malayalam columns was good but English is not. Malayalam was funny and had a punch and English did not.
That is why I said Mondays are not fun days any more. I don't enjoy reading the comments from the readers anymore. (But trust me, I still read them).
Naturally, they are right. The iPhone diary is not as funny as Oridathoridathu. In fact, it was not meant to be and that is my challenge.
I have to transform from being the guy who writes fun to a guy who writes iPhoto diary which is a totally different product. But, of course, I also want nice comments!
I have been reflecting on this on my way to Washington DC last week, thinking how to turn around the slide. Should I go back to Malayalam, should I make my English columns more 'funny' or should I just continue with the iPhoto diary but add more pictures or should I just stick on with the current format and hope a new set of audience will emerge ?. To be honest, none of these are my preferred options and thinking of them made me feel a bit down.
When you are down, you retreat to your comfort zone, like when you are sick you crave for your comfort food.
And you know where my comfort zone is - 'the toilet'.
No, I am not going to run to the toilet in retreat. I am going to write about them, because as an environmental engineer I have spent a reasonable part of my career dealing with them. How much does an adult person $#!^ per day so that we could design the optimal size for a septic tank, how much water should be flushed down every time somebody goes to toilet, how many toilets are needed in a camp, and so on were some of the problems we dealt with regularly. For an environmental engineer, everything that goes into a toilet is daily bread and butter, now you just have to decide what is bread and what is butter!
The problem was solved for me in a way I did not expect. I ended up staying a hotel in Washington next to the National Mall. For those not familiar with Washington, National Mall is not a shopping area unlike the Emirates Mall. Washington Mall is an open park stretching al the way from the Capitol Building to the Lincoln Memorial, with the Washington Memorial in the middle. It is on this Mall that more than quarter million people assembled to listen to Martin Luther King make his historic 'I have a dream' speech in 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It is on this Mall that more than one million people assembled
in 2009 to see Barack Obama swear in on the steps of the Capitol Building as the 43rd President of the United States.
This week the whole park was buzzing with activity as the authorities are getting ready for the inauguration of Barack Obama 44th President of the United States. On Monday, the 21st of January, Barack Obama will again swear in as the President of the United States on the stairs of the Capitol Building overlooking the National Mall. They expect close to a million people will assemble at the park to witness the occasion and celebrate democracy.
Last Sunday, there was a full-scale dress rehearsal of the event. There were the stand-ins for the president and first lady, the band, policemen on horses, the secret service, the whole lot. I witnessed it all.
There were no million people in the National Mall then, but work was going on to prepare for them. Huge speakers, big TV screens, mounted lights, barricades, road blocks, sniffer dogs, OB Vans, traffic diversions and all that is needed to make the event safe, secure and spectacular. In the middle of it all, my eyes started looking for my comfort zone, 'Where are
the toilets for the million people ?'
There is a proverb in my language which says something like 'a mosquito will suck out only blood from the udder of a cow that even if that holds milk'. A secular translation will be something like 'an idiot will still ask for a bottle of water at the beer festival in Germany', as I did last year.
So in the midst of all the horse guards and secret service, what I was really looking for was for portable toilets which will be needed on the day to 'relieve' pressure on that day.
Of course, this is not funny. People will have to arrive hours before the swearing in and the party will continue hours after. If the weather is good there will be millions of cans of beer which will be drunk and even if not, there are natural processes at work one will need to go to the loo, even more number of times.
I used to work at the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, in Nagpur (India) a quarter of century ago. This is India's pioneering institute on public health and environmental management. Every April, close to a million people used to come and camp outside our campus to celebrate conversion of a large number of 'Dalits' (untouchables) to Buddhism.
Everybody at the institute used to dread this event and the week thereafter. No, this had nothing to do with the religious prejudices, but a practical matter.
There were no toilets for the million people.
Result, the entire NEERI Mall was an open toilet. For a week after the event, till the time the forces of nature had converted it all to dried-out dung cakes or diluted nutrient solutions for the vegetation, the whole place was unpassable.
The institute was established in 1957, the annual event had started decades before this and I joined the institute in 1988.
It amazed me that the best brains on public health engineering research in India could not anticipate the natural needs for a million people assembling in its backyard and make provisions for that, even three decades after its existence. I don't know if a solution has been found in Nagpur, but in numerous cities in India where people gather for political meetings or
pilgrimage I still find a totally unsatisfactory degree of sanitation arrangements.
To be honest, India is not the only place where I had come across this problem of insufficient public health arrangements around mass gatherings.
Geneva celebrates the Geneva Festival every year in July and August. It goes on for a month. The last day of the festival is the massive fireworks, the biggest in Europe, I am told.
I am also told that close to a half a million people crowd around the lake to watch the fireworks. People start to arrive by 7 PM, all the reserved venues have to be occupied by 9 PM, and fireworks start by 10 PM and goes on till eleven. August in Geneva is still Summer and there is lot of beer going around.
We were in the Mont Blanc Bridge which had been closed and barricaded as a prime viewing spot. I was there with my best friend Babu and in the pleasant August weather, Babu is sipping cold beer, one by one. By the time the fireworks were over, Babu's bladder was about to explode and then it hit him.
There is no toilet within this area and the ones that were present were all outside the barricade in the open area. He would be able to get out of this fenced area only when the humanity outside has moved on and dissipated. It would take at least an hour for the crowd to dissipate so that he can make his way and find a toilet nearby.
Stuck between a surge of humanity outside the fence and a bulging bladder inside his pants, he did the only humanly thing possible. He stood northward facing the Geneva fountain, which shoots five hundred liters of water per second to 140 meters height, facing away from the crowd and released the pressure down to the lake Geneva. He told me later that he was
not the only one doing it at that time and together it probably matched the Geneva fountains capacity at that time.
What do you expect if you cordoned a few thousand people into an area for few hours, with or without bottles of beer? Why don't you expect the obvious?
And that is why I was so impressed at the foresight of the organizers of the Presidential Inauguration at Washington. There are toilets wherever you look. Bobby's Pottys line the National Mall like great wall of China. In fact there are so many of them all along the mall that you don't even have to look. Walking end to end on the Capital Mall, I felt that probably at this point this is indeed the World Capital of Portable Toilets too.
I even saw a line of Don's Johns portable toilets right outside the National Archives building. This is where a number of original documents, including the US Constitution, is kept for public viewing. Incidentally, the Original US constitution is only 4 pages long with 7 articles. No wonder they guard it so carefully and take it so seriously. But more importantly, it is in front of this historic building that Mr Obama got out of his Presidential Limousine and started walking towards the White House. No wonder the authorities have made enough portable toilets here. Whether Mr Obama will get down and walk to White House this time is
a closely guarded secret, but authorities are taking no chances. Of course he is the President of the United States but if there is one thing we have learnt in dealing with toilets is that when it comes to matters relating to it 'We take it self evident that all men (and women) are created equal'.
There is a lot we can learn from America on democratic transition of power. There is a lot one can learn from the spectacular ceremony of inauguration. There is a lot one can learn about how the security forces oversee a million people coming to witness the most important person in the planet at close quarters.
As for me, I went around counting the number of toilets. It impressed me enormously that there were large number of toilets specially designed and reserved for the disabled. I looked at their alignment (facing to the crowd or away from it), I checked their function (flushing with water, air or chemicals?) and, most importantly, I tried to figure out what exactly will they do when it is all over.
There are many definition to what a developed country is ?. Some classify it based on the per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP), some classify it based on indicators like education and life expectancy. Increasingly people are trying to factor in inclusivity, environmental protection and natural resource conservation into the definition of what is sustainable development.
I would personally like to include clean toilets into the indicator. In 2013, more than two billion people in the world still don't have access to toilets, much less clean toilets. It does not need global treaties or technology transfer to ensure that every house in every village everywhere have a clean toilet. And when that modest goal is achieved, not only we would have started our journey to sustainable development but laid foundation for good health.
Guys and girls, don't ask me to be funny anymore. When it comes to matters so close to my heart (and come to think of it, the subject matter is less than a foot away from the heart), you can't have too much fun with it. As Frank Zappa said 'Don't eat the yellow snow'…