Hello, This Is Nature’s Call From A Garbage Heap!

Safe drinking water and proper sanitation facilities are basic necessities of life and the likes of you and me perhaps have never faced the ignominy of trading our privacy for want of basic sanitary needs like proper toilets and clean drinking water. Yet, according to the 2011 Census data, 50% of India’s population defecates in the open, 53% have no drinking water availability within the premises and 49% households are without any drainage facility. Contrast this with over 53% households owning a mobile phone and 47% having a television set. Great progress indeed! 

An uncaring public system coupled with an uninformed and unmindful society results in a daily affront to the dignity of the thousands of citizens of a shining India, who either defecate in the open or waste time in commuting everyday to access public toilets. Children run home in between classes for lack of toilets even in government schools; girls absent themselves for similar reasons, especially when they are menstruating; women often do not eat enough for the shame of answering nature’s call in daytime in the open; accidents occur and lives are lost when railway tracks are used as lavatories; and money is spent unnecessarily on medicines due to spread of water borne illnesses—all due to lack of proper sanitation.  This could be avoided if the three major problems of poor sanitation, lack of potable water and proper toilets could be tackled.

During my recent visit to a few slums of Kanpur city, seeing was, indeed believing in the day to day struggle of people, especially women, children and old people living in the numerous slums dotting the city of Kanpur, which has about 450 registered slums (and God knows how many unregistered ones). Nearly one third of the city’s population reportedly lacks access to potable water and basic sanitation.  WaterAid UK, an international organization, in partnership with a local based NGO Shramik Bharti, is trying to provide a thin silver lining to this bleak scenario. It is helping marginalised communities to access safe drinking water and sanitation facilities through community led public-private partnerships in about 150 slums of Kanpur city, each housing 150 to 400 families. The mission is to motivate people to build shared toilets, revive existing derelict sulabh toilets (community toilets) and build new community toilets and low cost school sanitation blocks for girls and boys. Shramik Bharti is promoting the shared toilet concept wherein 4 families build one toilet (with a septic tank or soak pit) costing around 10,000 rupees, out of which 1000 is given by WaterAid and the rest is contributed by the families, who also share the upkeep cost. Shared community toilets are hygienic, economical, take less space and are a cheap alternative to the ‘toilet within premises’ facility. The aim is to develop model slums with complete sanitation facilities.

A direct consequence of this project has been the empowering of women community leaders, who are trained to form community level water and sanitation groups, and become self sufficient to negotiate directly with government officials for solving the water and sanitation problems of their areas . The three tier training programme involves equipping women and girls, from the grassroots level, with adequate information and skills. One master TOT (trainer of trainers) chosen from each slum, receives three days training. Each of them then goes back to her basti and trains 5 citizen leaders coming from different parts of her slum. Each citizen leader then trains 5 women of her area, each of who empowers and educates 5 families under her supervision to bring about lasting behavior changes. They also have a micro saving system to have a pool of money to be used for their work.

Collectively, all these women are trained to look into the water and sanitation management of their locality and seek redress of existing problems, by apprising concerned authorities through properly drafted applications, representations and jan sunvaais (public hearings) and also by using the provisions of Right to Information Act, as well as consumer forums, if need be. Most of them have their own mobile phones with the numbers of all concerned officers and offices. Their success stories are many. Derelict public toilets are getting repaired, defunct hand water pumps are being made functional, garbage heaps are being removed, and shared toilet concept is gaining acceptance. This year on World Toilet Day, the women gave 30 representations to the city Commissioner, who not only thanked them for showing him the way, but also initiated appropriate action.

Aneesa and Nurunissa, members of a self help group of a slum of daily wage tannery workers in Jajmau area, proudly proclaim that—“Shramik Bharti helped us to come out of our purdah and solve our own problems, after all our pleas fell on deaf government ears. Many programmes have been initiated by them to empower and educate women and make them self sufficient by training them in stitching, candle making, and by encouraging micro savings, which has increased from a measly Rs 10 to 100 rupees per month now. Faced with an acute shortage of drinking and domestic use of water, we invested 35,000 (from the group savings of the past 18 years) to install a submersible pump in 2006, along with a 2000 litre capacity overhead tank and two public taps, with Shramik Bharti’s help. Now all the 40 families living here get water supply by paying a small user charge of Rs 50 per month, per family. This availability of clean water has indeed improved our lives, and reduced water borne diseases, like diarrhea in our children. Of course, a lot many problems still need to be resolved. Proper waste disposal is still a problem but now it is at least being periodically collected by the Nagar Nigam and we are working towards its improvement. ”

Citizen leaders like Archana, Guddan, Mona, Pinki of another slum, situated in the Air Force Station area, are happy to be voluntarily engaged, for the last two years, with work which impacts their well being. Their clean environs bear testimony to the power of community involvement in improving sanitation.  They say—“Earlier this slum had just one Sulabh toilet which was lying defunct for the past 2 years.  So, people would defecate in the open, giving rise to severe unhygienic conditions, and inviting a host of diseases. But our women’s group, helped by Shramik Bharti , has got this toilet repaired, and there is now  good maintenance of it, with some user charges collected per month from each of the 300-400 resident families. 10 shared toilets are under various stages of construction. Currently there are only 17 hand pumps (some of which are defunct) for the entire area, making water a scarce commodity. But a water tank being constructed under the Jawaharlal Nehru Yojna, hopes to solve our water problem. Thanks to the combined efforts of the community, 70% families now have access to proper toilet facilities and no longer face the ignominy of defecating in the open.”

A government primary school of this area, with 250 students, is also a part of this hygiene and cleanliness programme. Its broken toilet has been rebuilt and children are motivated to practice good hygiene—wash hands before eating, clean nails, daily bath, clean clothes, keep eatables/food covered and protected from flies. Other school children also have been given basic hygiene education and they in their turn insist upon improved hygienic behaviour at home.

As more and more people show interest in this project, construction of 6 shared toilets in a Tharu basti, 8 in Gowardhan Purwa, 8 in Saipurwa and revival of defunct community toilets in other slums like Barahdevi are slowly but surely changing the scenario. Resident citizen leaders like Srikanti, Pramila, Sunita, Roshni, and Sumita feel that these toilets have made their lives easier and more dignified as they no longer have to defecate in the open under constant threat of policemen chasing them away. With ordinary women assuming responsibility several other sanitation issues have been tackled within a short span of time, by making the official machinery move,  after years of neglect.  Recently, they collectively managed to get 18 truck load of garbage removed, and drainage pipes jammed for years, cleaned. Incidence of childhood illnesses and water/mosquito borne diseases has decreased. 

The filth and squalor of the surroundings no longer blemishes the confident demeanor and neat appearance of these women who are rejoicing in their new found empowerment after years of social subjugation. They are proud to have come out from the confines of their houses to become community leaders. Now, women find it shameful to defecate in the open—something which they had got used to earlier. They have become aware of the hazards of food infected by flies, and the necessity of hygiene in daily life—do not wipe anything or your child’s face with your saree, as it will contaminate it with dirt and germs. Now they simply discard food open to flies. It helps them to keep their children healthy and disease free in clean surroundings.  It was lack of knowledge and information which made them follow unhygienic practices, but now they have become alert. This has also enabled communities to understand the value of hygiene and to fight for their rights. They now know that if the community is united and committed to work together, a lot many things can improve. There is no looking back for them now.

Shobha Shukla - CNS
(The author is the Managing Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS). She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA. She has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP and taught physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. She also co-authored a book (translated in three languages) "Voices from the field on childhood pneumonia" and a report on Hepatitis C and HIV treatment access issues in 2011. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: http://www.citizen-news.org) 

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