According to Article 15, Section 1 of the Act Relating to Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2074 (2017), “The persons with disabilities shall have the right to have easy access to other services and facilities that are open or provided for the public, including educational institutes, housing, workplaces, buildings, roads, transportation and electric communication services.”

In reality, Nepal lacks accessibility in all forms: educational institutes, workplaces, buildings, roads, transportation, and lastly, toilets. Denying accessibility to people living with a disability is not only a violation of human rights but also diminishes a person’s right to a dignified life.

Amongst the thousands who live with a disability is Dev Kumari Parajuli, who is also a member of the National Federation of the Disabled in Nepal. In an interview, she shared examples of how a lack of accessible toilets in the valley, and in the nation, diminishes her right to a dignified life.

“Every morning, I have to plan what to eat,” she began her story of physical and mental anguish. “I cannot drink too much, and have to monitor my solid food intake just in case, I might have to use a facility en route. When I share such things, this isn’t limited to me. It is limited to thousands of people living with a disability. Can you imagine the discomfort of having to remain hungry an entire day because of the lack of public facilities?”

Dev Kumar Parajuli discusses the problems faced by people living with a disability due to the lack of accessible toilets in the valley. (Image: Dhan Khaling)

Discussing her experiences at length, Parajuli explained how she had to change schools and that, even today, many parents of students living with a disability reach out to her about this issue. The students don’t eat lunch at school nor drink much water because the toilets in schools are not accessible to them, and they have to eat more in the evening or at night to make up for the missed meals. This has a detrimental impact on their sleep schedules, and for growing kids, this is a major problem.

When a lot of offices in the valley have toilets many floors away from the working space, people with a disability cannot use them. “We want to work and contribute to society as productive individuals, but because of the way the toilets are placed or built, we have to pick and choose our place of work and this cuts down opportunities,” Parajuli explained.

Dev Kumari Parajuli also tells us that like everyone else, she would like to go to a restaurant, have a nice time with her friends, and enjoy some good food. But yet again, toilets prevent her from doing so.

A big issue is also that even though some toilet-building projects may attempt to be inclusive, even seemingly minor features can make or break the accessibility. NFDN has a guideline on a universal design for public toilets that are accessible to everyone. However, some projects may try to put a ramp for people with a wheelchair but don’t have railings on the side to support people with different mobility issues. This is why institutions trying to build accessible public toilets are highly encouraged to follow the NFDN toilet guidelines.

Simple things like the elevated shaft here at a disabled friendly toilet in Chitwan can break accessibility features of a toilet. (Image: Nishant Singh Gurung)

This was consistent with the findings of an Aawaaj News Report Finding in October 2022. A team from Aawaaj News, in collaboration with Guthi Nepal, surveyed public toilets from Kathmandu to Chitwan. Of the more than 50 toilets surveyed, only three were disabled-friendly. Of the three, one was locked, one required further assistance, and one featured a difficult ramp, making all three toilets inaccessible.

Highways are a far cry, but within the valley too, accessible toilets are hard to find. In Kathmandu, one is in Ratna Park, but it is non-functional. A second toilet is in Bhrikuti Mandap, and it is built to standards. However, it could close down soon enough.

The public toilet near the Bhrikuti Mandap Exhibition Hall is managed by Tirtha Rai and his family. It is a small source of income for them and has facilities for people living with a disability. It is used frequently, especially during programs organised by the National Federation of the Disabled or other programs in the popular exhibition hall nearby. However, a lot of people tend to not use the toilet because there are shops built right outside it, making it unclear whether the toilet is a public or private facility. This is due to the steep rent charged by the Social Welfare Council. Tirtha Rai has to pay over Rs 116,199 in rent per month, and because of this, he is forced to let the surrounding areas operate shops while operating one himself.

An accessible public toilet in Bhrikuti Mandap is lost in the clutter of shops because the caretakers have to pay a steep rent. (Image: Pankaj Thapa)

An accessible public toilet in Bhrikuti Mandap is lost in the clutter of shops because the caretakers have to pay a steep rent. (Image: Pankaj Thapa)

Aerosan: A ray of hope for those living with a disability

While state-owned toilets leased to private operators within the valley, including Kathmandu, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur, are mostly run down, there is one social enterprise that has been leading by example: Aerosan.

Aerosan Sustainable Sanitation has been operating accessible and smart toilet hubs in seven different locations in the valley and in many ways has revolutionised the perception of public toilets. One user of their facilities has even said that the public toilet is cleaner than the one he uses at home. Aerson toilets can be found in Patandhoka, Mangalbazar, Buddhapark, Ramghat, Tripureshwor, Baneshwor, and the newest one in Paropakar Marg.

The public toilet in Paropakar Marg, Ward No. 20, was recently inaugurated by KMC Mayor Balendra Shah. The project, initiated by Aerosan Sustainable Sanitation in cooperation with the metropolitan city, aimed to rebuild a 25-year-old public toilet that was in shambles. It has been open to the public since August 6th of this year and seems to be the epitome of what public toilets ought to be.

The public toilet in Paropakar Marg has many exciting features, including its own underground anaerobic digestion dome to treat the fecal sludge and minimize black-water waste; a bio-gas energy module, which is an extension of the fecal waste treatment system; as well as a rainwater harvesting and water recycling circular flow model that ensures minimum external water usage. All of this is packed into a small space within Ward No. 20 in KMC, hinting that maybe smart and accessible toilets such as this one are an underrated investment on all accounts.

Late Prakash Amatya, CEO of Aerosan Sustainable Sanitation, is a veteran of toilets and a fountain of information regarding the technology and management principles of Aerosan facilities. “Firstly, our public toilet projects are based on our five pillars of principles,” said Amatya. “Water and Women are our two primary pillars. They are at the nucleus of every project we undertake. The next is Water Conservation, for which we have created a water recycling system in our facility. Infrastructure is the fourth pillar. The final one is Management, and our staffs are at the core of this.”

Water and Women are two primary pillars in any Aerosan toilet. (Image: Somi Kumar Jung Panday)

According to him, toilets have been vastly neglected in our communities. Even people building toilets in their own houses usually try to construct them in any leftover space such as under a staircase. Amatya wants to change that mindset. “Public toilets should be in such a pristine and sanitary state that they are worthy of paying money to use,” he argued. “Our goal is to create such facilities where people don’t shy away from using or going to.”

Aerosan has embraced technology as a way to attract people to use its facilities. The toilets have utilized modern technology in every aspect. The sink and the hand-soap dispenser are both motion-sensor based. The design of the hand drier can be a little tricky to operate, but it is automatic, a critical feature in a modern toilet.

Installing easy-to-use features in public bathrooms can have a positive impact on public health. Having a smoother process for cleaning ourselves after using the toilet promotes handwashing and sanitation. Automatic technology is also important from a public health point of view, as the motion sensors make it unnecessary to touch the tap or the dispenser. This minimizes contact with areas that are hotspots for bacteria and the spread of disease. Another benefit of utilizing automatic technology to minimize contact with the appliances in a public toilet is that, ideally, these appliances will experience less damage over time and require fewer repairs.

Ventilation is another critical aspect of any public toilet and can make a huge difference in how many people opt to use the facility. To address this, Aerosan has built a central ventilator in the ceiling which clears out the smell in the entirety of the building.

Another unique feature is that coins can be used to obtain a sanitary pad for women and a machine incinerates used pads into ashes to ensure safe disposal. Medical masks can also be disposed of in the machine. There is also a foldable wooden station available where parents can change diapers.

As for accessibility, there is a dedicated area for people living with a disability and for people who don’t conform to gender binaries. This area is disability-friendly and includes a showering-cleaning station as needed.

Now, we have seen a lot of technology being used within, which may beg the question: “Where does the electricity for all this come from, and would energy consumption be an issue?” Prakash Amatya’s answer to this was thrilling.

Contactless handdrying area, area for anerobic digestion with capacity to hold graywater, and adequate ventilation.

As alluded to in the beginning, there is an anaerobic treatment system underneath the hub building, and this converts the fecal sludge into water, which can be used again. Furthermore, the black-water waste is also turned into bio-gas and, in turn, powers the whole building. So everything from the tea that is made in the mini café-lounge area to the automatic lights used are powered by the toilets themselves! The gray water, which is the water containing chemicals such as soap, is dealt with separately. And on top of all this, additional water is collected via the rainwater harvesting system, which stores the collected rainwater in a well right next to the building.

Accessible toilets, inclusive cities, dignified living

Birendra, caretaker of a public toilet in Thankot, and a person living with a disability had to change his surname because of the stigma associated with his profession. (Image: Nishant Singh Gurung)

Just ahead of parting ways with Devi, a statement strikes a deep chord: “Thank you bhai, there aren’t many who would raise a voice regarding our struggles. Our stories are limited within our own community. It is when our plight is discussed within the mainstream, then change can be inspired.”

On the ride back home, it got me thinking about how simple things we take for granted can be a limitation for the physically disabled, and that this necessitates change that is inclusive. Inclusive of communities who should not be left behind because of a simple thing like a toilet.

Access to a toilet when nature calls, if available for other members of society, should be available to a person living with a disability too. This would lead us towards becoming an inclusive country, one which respects the dignity of all.

Note: The interview with Prakash Amatya, CEO of Aerosan Sustainable Solution was taken in August, 2021. Sadly, at the time of publishing this news, Mr Amatya is no longer within our midst. Aawaaj News pays its deepest respect and sincere condolences to Mr Amatya’s family.