A clean, private and accessible toilet isn’t a given. In the time that they take to reach it, mentalities contract and expand many times, and only when civic pressures are at their peak, are they released from the pain of the ill-digested thought that it is expensive and inconvenient to maintain a toilet. In the context of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), one has to make a trip to Mewat where the presence of “functional” latrines in one village juxtapose its socio-economic well-being against that of its district.
Less than 60 km from the swanky malls and towering offices of multinationals in Gurgaon, along the Sohna-Alwar highway, is a village called Hirmathala in district Nuh. Up until 2012, its population of 2,000 was walking half a mile to defecate. In 2011, (three years before SBM arrived on the scene) Sulabh International, an NGO famous for its environmental sanitation practices, pledged to develop it as an ideal.
Today, in Hirmathala’s 150 to 175 households, there are 165 toilets. Its people have stories to tell. Susheela’s marriage brought her to Hirmathala from Ballabhgarh, Faridabad in 2004. Her maternal village had toilets and she realised a new kind of shame when the women in her husband’s family asked her to curb the urge to urinate. Today, Susheela works as a hospital assistant in Nuh.
On rainy days, Geeta Devi and her young daughters have waded through knee-deep muck to reach drier spots near the highway where snakes and scorpions roam. Often, they would be eve-teased by truck drivers. Today, her daughters go to school on time and say they feel more confident in front of men.
Vijaylakshmi painfully reveals that her son was born with a big head and thin legs because she was too dehydrated to walk toward the fields. Throughout her pregnancy, she kept dreading the possibility of having to deliver a child in the fields. The same children who used to playfully squat anywhere earlier, she says, now come back home even if they feel the need to wash their hands.
Shakuntala has built three toilets in her house, one for each daughter-in-law. She feels a toilet is a bigger asset than a constructed room or even jewellery. Deaths due to dysentery, malaria and jaundice were not uncommon earlier. The closest hospital is still 10 km away, but the presence of a local doctor multiple times a week has increased the focus on healthcare.
Ladies from the village say they don’t have faith in any political party. They call Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International, their saviour. After enormous civil society efforts, Hirmathala won the Nirmal Gram Puraskar in January 2012. Since then, its women have been invited to tie raakhis to Modi and were seen brooming Delhi’s roads to campaign for SBM. Sarpanch Mamandin is proud to have been honoured by the President of India in 2012 for effectively supervising the construction of the toilets. They are tickled when they watch ads for Swacch Bharat on the television, especially the one that shows a certain Shukla ji, whose life priorities are mocked at when he buys a new television but still excretes in the open. The residents of Hirmathala feel the campaign, that missed them by three years, is on the right track in using creative antics to invoke shame but should be more “women-centric”. Women, they explain, suffer secretly and realise the humiliation deeply.
Meanwhile, the government is assessing the impact and implementation of SBM. Finance Secretary Ashok Lavasa, in the letter dated 20 September 2016, directed ministries of Rural Development, Water Resources, Urban Development, Chemical & Fertilisers among others to submit action taken reports on the recommendations of group of secretaries on SBM in March, 2016. The group of secretaries will review the action taken in the last six months and make a presentation before the council of ministers in the near future.
As of 4 October, they were still preparing the action taken report as far as SBM is concerned. In the 13-point recommendation, which will be reviewed by the group of secretaries, it is stated that the Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Drinking Water & Sanitation and State governments should involve people in community sanitation programmes based on the lessons learned from the Seechewal model (A low cost model that collects sewage water from ponds and treats it in a natural way so it can be used for agriculture and irrigation purposes).
Hirmathala’s story is both a lesson for policy makers and an inspiration for administration in other villages. “What we realised here was that people didn’t want to maintain toilets because they assumed they would have to spend at least Rs 25,000 to build them and even more to water-power them. Moreover, they didn’t want outsiders talking to them about something as private as their bathroom habits,” says Mohammad Arif, who worked as a mediator between the social workers and the locals during the movement.
Most of Nuh is Muslim-dominated but Hirmathala is 50 per cent Hindu. “It was slightly easier to convince the Maulvis and the village elders on the issue. It’s harder in other places that are more orthodox,” he adds, stressing the importance of earning people’s faith in making any sanitation mission successful.
Simply constructing a toilet for national statistics isn’t enough. What’s required is monitoring at the district/block level. Not one but many toilets in government schools in the district’s Chandeni and Dhir Dhaunka villages are under lock and key because there isn’t any water supply. Recently, inside a Sulabh toilet in Punahana gaon, somebody was found running a shop. Tain, Ferozepur Namak and Bainsi are still grappling with dirt and infections because only a handful of homes here have toilets.
When Sulabh adopted Hirmathala in 2011, villagers had only heard of the single pit model. This featured a 10 – 12 ft deep pit. “We noticed that some people dug so deep into the ground that the pit touched the water bed and waste came out from the hand-pump, leading to fecal-oral contamination,” says Naseem, a volunteer with Sulabh that started the trend of 4 ft x 4 ft two-pit, pour-flush toilets. These use only a litre of water each time, as opposed to 8 – 1o litres in a regular western style model found in urban spaces.
A total of 100 toilets were constructed using CSR funding from Railtel Corporation of India Limited that paid Rs 15,000 for each. The other 67 were made by Sulabh. “We took Rs 3,000 from each household (in the form of labour, masonry or money) during the construction because people don’t feel involved or understand the worth of something they get for free,” explains Naseem. He gives the example of the Depot Medroxy Progesterone Acetate (DMPA) injectable contraceptive that costs Rs 500 and is now being offered by the government for free. But, owing to strict monitoring by Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA), people are completing the course of four injections, each taken after an interval of three months.
As a part of the SBM, the government offers a refund of Rs 12,000 to those who get a toilet constructed in their residence. To avail the scheme, there are pre-requisites like a mounted water tank and a wash basin and several rounds of documentation, which villagers mostly need assistance in. “We have seen cases where people construct the toilet to get Rs 12,000 from the government and later use it as a storage room. That is the mindset we have managed to change in Hirmathala,” says Arif.
Here, Sulabh also runs a skill-development centre where women are taught stitching, computers and beauty parlour skills. Locals say Zakir Hussain, MLA from Indian National Lok Dal, has never visited the centre. “The system is working harder than these NGOs. On early mornings and late nights, we conduct raids in fields and expose those who are still in the habit of defecating in the open,” says Govind Ram Prajapati, District Consultant, SBM. By making video clippings of offenders and putting their pictures in newspapers, state authorities are shaming and chasing them away from open areas. He talks about Rojka gaon, where 147 homes still don’t have toilets and the few houses that do, don’t use them.
The movement has picked up greatly in the last three months, with the adoption of Community Led-Total Sanitation by the state. This is a methodology for mobilising communities to completely eliminate open defecation. Pioneered in Bangladesh, CLTS focuses on the behavioural change needed to ensure real and sustainable improvements — investing in community mobilisation instead of hardware, and shifting the focus from toilet construction for individual households to the creation of open defecation-free villages.
In Hirmathala, Modi’s much-evocative quote from his address at the Red Fort in 2013 ‘pehle sauchalaya fir devalaya’ (toilets first, temples later) is painted on walls and recited often. The only difference is that before it was first said, a force had already exerted all its strength to pull the flush on filthy old practices.