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Tragic twist to Swachh Bharat story: 21-year-old commits suicide following spat over space for toilet

Annapoorna, a 21-year-old in Matihalli village of Karnataka's Davangere district committed suicide on Monday. At least that is what the FIR says. But, considerations the circumstances in which she took the extreme step, the Government of India and the Government of Karnataka surely seem to have blood on their hands.

For the last three months or so, the local Panchayat officials had been warning Annapoorna's father Sureshappa, a daily wage worker, that ration to his family will be stopped unless he constructed a toilet under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. The problem was that Sureshappa did not have the funds to build a toilet.

According to government estimates, constructing a toilet costs Rs 12,000, which the family has to spend from its own pocket. The amount is reimbursed only after the panchayat provides photographic evidence of the construction of the toilet.

 Tragic twist to Swachh Bharat story: 21-year-old commits suicide following spat over space for toilet

Annapoorna, the 21-year-old from a Karnataka village who committed suicide after a scuffle over the construction of a toilet. Image procured by author

In order to raise funds, Sureshappa, under duress, sold the only cow the family owned. Locals say the cow, that should have ideally gone for Rs 15,000-20,000, was undersold for just Rs 5,000.

The second problem was that Sureshappa's house measured only 10 by 10 feet, with no space to build a toilet inside the house. He had built a similar 10 by 10 feet room on top, for his eight-member family. So, he decided to construct the toilet just beside the house. That's when trouble broke out.

The dargah next door claimed that the land belonged to it and objected to Sureshappa's plan to build a toilet there. The local village panchayat contradicted the dargah, saying it was their designated meeting place even though it had been a barren, unused land for years.

The police was called in which warned Sureshappa against building a toilet on land that did not belong to him. It also asked Sureshappa to present himself at the police station, which he refused. Sureshappa was at his wits' end, asked to build a toilet by one arm of the government and prevented from doing so by another.

The cops were called in again on 26 November by the panchayat and dargah members when Sureshappa, fearing he would not get the ration for December, began digging the pit on the land. The police this time, allegedly abused Sureshappa, threatening to put him behind bars.

But that did not deter Sureshappa, who resumed work on Monday. That's when things took an ugly turn with Annapoorna questioning the police inspector why the family was being threatened and stopped from doing something the government had asked them to do. The inspector allegedly threatened to beat her up and dragged her to the police station.

According to the villagers, after the encounter with the police, Annapoorna got scared, climbed to the first floor, poured the entire can of three litres of kerosene on herself, set herself on fire and jumped down from the first floor. She fell down even as the villagers and the police looked on, close to the toilet her father was struggling to build. She succumbed to her burn injuries at the Davangere hospital, 55 kilometres away.

It is not as if Annapoorna, who had completed her BA, had not reached out to higher authorities. On Sunday, she had called S Aswathi, the CEO of the Zilla Parishad in Davangere. The IAS officer was sympathetic to the family's problem and assured Annapoorna that she will resolve the issue and help her build the toilet.

Durgappa, the investigating officer in the case, denies the police indulged in intimidation tactics but admits the girl got frightened by the police presence. The family has named 14 villagers and the panchayat development officer in the FIR but the police are yet to arrest anyone.

"We are still investigating the case,'' Durgappa. "Please note that members of the dargah objected to the construction of the toilet because it belongs to a place of worship.''

What the police glosses over is the fact that the panchayat's unilateral diktat had pushed the family to the brink. They were looking at a situation where they would be no foodgrains and no milk after having sold their cow. Annapoorna, spoken of as a sensitive girl, was privy to the discussion within the family.

The tragedy highlights that the governments do not seem to have an adequate understanding of the dynamics on the ground while looking to implement a programme devised in Delhi.

Sugata Raju, the editor of Kannada portal The State that first reported this story, said: "The implementation of such a scheme is without empathy or sympathy. It is a welfare programme but the manner in which it is sought to be done is as if the administration is doing charity. They should ideally help families sort out the problem.''

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Updated Date: Dec 01, 2017 15:17:30 IST