Pune’s old pink buses are now ladies’ toilets

Good ideas spread. In this case, the amazing pink bus washrooms for women in the city of Pune, India, were inspired by how nonprofits in the US were converting buses to toilets and washroom facilities for unhoused people living on the street. The city of 6 million in western India is developing the roadmap for the world’s first Smart Sanitation City, in collaboration with the Toilet Board Coalition (TBC).

The bus washrooms are life changing. Executive director Ulke Sadalkar remembers the five to six hour drives from Pune to Mumbai when she was a young girl. “Nowhere along the route was there a safe and clean toilet that we could use and so we would stop at five star hotels and try to sneak in and use their toilets without being noticed.”

The idea came about in 2016 when then municipal commissioner Kunal Kumar, who was also heading the Smart City initiative, mentioned a shortage of toilets. “I have seen buses in the United States, which were used by homeless people and this idea to create toilets out of scrap buses came to me,” said Rajeev Kher, founder of Saraplast Pvt Ltd., who partnered with Sadalkar to create Toilet Integration. 

(He didn’t name a non profit but I immediately thought of Lava Mae, which was founded in 2013 and gave its first shower in San Francisco in 2014, but sadly, had to close down in summer 2023 due to an unprecedented budget shortfall.)

“Pune is a dense city, there is no space for new builds and so in a meeting with the Pune Municipal Corporation we started brainstorming how we could provide more toilets for women throughout the city,” explains Sadalkar. “The idea of retired city buses arose and then and there Toilet Integration (Ti for short) was born.”

EcoIndia Mar. 8, 2020

“We take the old buses from the city, use CSR funds to completely renovate and refurbish them into beautiful restrooms for women; they include toilets, nursing areas, showers etc and are operated as businesses. We strategically place them throughout the city to serve the large populations of women on the go.” The decision kept the 13-year-old buses out of the landfill, and Saraplast used its own facilities to transform them.

The toilets have an inbuilt water tank and run on solar energy. Each bus has a female attendant. As well as clean washrooms, the buses have a small space for breast feeding and diaper changing space, and a small cafe is attached. A television plays information on UTI, menstrual hygiene, and breast cancer, and sanitary napkins are available. They have now served over 10 million women.

Through the Toilet Board Coalition’s Toilet Accelerator, 3S is working with Unilever, Kimberly-Clark and Firmenich to prepare for scale. “We had always been primarily a B2B company (business to business), but now we’re working B2C (business to consumer) and it’s incredible how much we’ve learned,” says Sadalkar.

Saraplast, which has been in the sanitation business for several decades, wants to expand the concept to all India’s smart cities. Pune is one of 100 Smart Cities which are part of the government’s Smart Cities Mission launched in 2016, two years after it launched its Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India) aiming to end open defecation by building household and community toilets. 

Linking the two national priorities is a unique opportunity, says the Toilet Board Coalition. It boosts economic growth while addressing the sanitation crisis – and contributing to the Sustainable Development Goal 6.2 for universal access to safely managed sanitation. India estimates the sanitation economy will be worth $62 billion annually.

A range of innovations are being tested in Pune, which is serving as a real-world laboratory for sanitation systems of the future. “What we’re trying to do is build up this sense that the sanitation system isn’t something that is forgotten on the dirtiest street corners but it’s part of a modern, thriving city,” said Sandy Rodger, chief operations officer of the Toilet Board Coalition.

“Smart Sanitation is a new way of looking at sanitation designed for cost recovery, revenue generating business opportunities and future system resilience. It leverages innovative technologies based on the collection and monitoring benefits of real-time data that are already reshaping most industrial sectors via the Fourth Industrial Revolution4,” says the TBC.

Pune is the city of the future.

SMART SANITATION CITY The Sanitation Economy at City Scale. Toilet Board Coalition, Nov. 2018
India’s city of Pune focuses on sanitation system of the future. NBC, Jan. 10, 2019

(After I’d written the post, and was looking for a picture for a social media post, I discovered this story from the Better India – Meet the Pune Duo Turning Old Buses into Clean Toilets for Women! The Better India, Jan. 3, 2019)