Lessons from one Rajasthan block: open defecation can be a closed chapter

Officially, Taranagar is Rajasthan’s first open defecation-free block. The tag, however, depends on people using the toilets built with government help


Jasleen Kaur | October 1, 2014

Sugna Devi has probably seen many more days than 29,200 if she was 80 years old. But since none in her Rajasthan village knows her exact age – estimates hover between 80 and 90 – one can safely assume Devi has defecated in the open for at least these many days every single day.

A dalit, Devi has lived a tough life tilling the family’s small piece of land after her husband’s death and bringing up her three sons. Now living with the youngest, Mahender, his wife Suntro and their four children, Devi wears her chunari stretched at her forehead. It wasn’t the same always.

In her village, Lunas in Taranagar block of Churu district, and elsewhere in most of Rajasthan, women keep their faces completely covered in the presence of men, the only exception being the very old. The Governance Now photographer had a tough time convincing them to let him stay during the interviews for this article. Though the permission to click photographs would be granted promptly, the veils would stay put – the chunari always hanging from the head covering all of the face and the neck. That, however, did not stop these women from going to the fields to defecate in the open till last year. They had no option either, for none had a toilet built in her house. Nobody ever felt the need to build one either.

We all had to go to the fields in the open, because there was nothing called a toilet. We had to get up early, when it was still dark. And when we were sick or it rained, it was very difficult. …No matter how dense the forest was, we were still in the open.

Sugna Devi

About 300 kilometres southwest of Delhi, Sugna Devi’s village of more than 300 families had no culture of in-house toilets till the late 1990s. Most households here are of poor, lower-caste dalits.

ALSO READ: To stop open defecation, stop only building toilets, make people use them

For all her life until last year, Devi was forced to leave home before dawn, or wait until dark, to defecate and urinate in the open. Inadequate access to safe, hygienic and private sanitation facility has caused her physical discomfort and insecurity. Over the years, Devi conditioned herself to drink less water during the day, which led to health problems. But there never was another way of life – for her and other women living in villages in and around hers. “We all had to go to the fields in the open, because there was nothing called a toilet. We had to get up early, when it was still dark. And when we were sick or it rained, it was very difficult,” she said.

In the fields there was always the fear of coming across an animal or a reptile, or coming in contact with a poisonous plant, besides the ever-preying thought of shame encountering a fellow villager passing through. “Many a time we had to get up in between if someone came along that way,” Devi said. Earlier, they had to walk for about 2 km to defecate in open, said Devi. And at times when it was impossible to wait for sundown, they had to move further away from the village for the embarrassment of being seen. “No matter how dense the forest was, we were still in the open.”

Mission possible
This, then, is the story of Taranagar block in Rajasthan, which has become the first ever in the state to be declared open-defecation free (ODF). All 28 panchayats in the block have achieved this target. Taranagar’s – and Churu’s, too, for the district is on its way to become free of open defecation – performance is significant for a state that otherwise ranks poorly in providing proper sanitation to its people.

But the picture was quite different till recently. Three years ago, Churu, a town in the Thar desert, was ranked one of India’s dirtiest.

Hardly 5 percent households in the block had toilets till 1998. Churu lacked surface and ground water. The situation worsened during summers, when drought was common. To tackle water shortage in the district, the Aapni Yojana was launched to supply drinking water. The overall objective of the scheme was to improve the health of the population. Launched in 1997, the funding for the first phase of the project was provided jointly by the Indian and German governments.

During the implementation of this programme, local construction labourers were trained to build toilets, which were constructed in some households in the block. By 2003, around 50 percent households had in-house toilets. But the problem of open defecation still continued. It was only after October 2012, when the local authorities joined hands, that the block could tackle the problem effectively.Rohit Gupta, a 2006 batch IAS officer of Rajasthan cadre, was the driving force behind the effort. A young Gupta, who joined as the district collector, decided to change the picture in Churu.

Rohit Gupta, a 2006 batch IAS officer of Rajasthan cadre, took up the task of making the block 100% ODF. He initiated the campaign to mobilise the community by creating awareness.

Jaychand Sharma Sarpanch, Lunas village

An electrical engineer from IIT-Delhi who is now posted in Pali district, Gupta initiated the campaign to mobilise the community and create awareness through public meetings and other programmes. He took up the task of making the block 100 percent ODF. He not only motivated people to build toilets but also ensured they used them. “We realised we were not paying attention to it (actual use of toilets). Thereafter, it wasn’t difficult at all to convince people to build and use toilets,” Gupta told Governance Now.

Between January and October 2013, over 10,000 toilets were constructed in the block, which were funded by the government under the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA) and Mahatma Gandhi national rural employment guarantee scheme (MNREGS). An equal number of toilets were built outside of these two schemes. Gupta and his team, including the panchs and sarpanchs, stressed on behavioural change rather than merely building the toilets.

Sanitary habits are hardly discussed in closed societies but Gupta’s efforts made it a topic of public debate in Churu and its villages. The authorities bluntly told people that they were eating each other’s excreta. “We created awareness by creating disgust among villagers about open defecation. We told them when they defecate in the open, flies sit on it. On an average, a fly can travel up to 2.5 km, so even if they go out of the village to defecate, the same flies come to the village and sit on the food they eat. We told them how the excreta of small children created more health hazards. That proved to be the trigger,” he explained.

“It was difficult to build so many toilets in one go. So we started creating awareness among people for not defecating in the open,” said Lunas sarpanch Jaychand Sharma.

The situation was really bad earlier, Sharma said. People used to defecate in the open, villages were dirty, there were a lot of flies, and it created a lot of health hazards, he added.

A single brick costs '6. Around 2,000 bricks are required to build a toilet and a bathroom (3ft x 3ft each). And there is an additional cost of cement and labour. The government reimburses merely '9,100 for this.

Bishna Ram Resident of Lunas village

“The trick to motivate people to build toilets and start using them was simple,” said Gupta. “We did not involve any outside agency to construct the toilets. Locals were trained and we made it a prestige issue by telling them that their women were facing shame every day. And because they built the toilets on their own, they were also eager to use them.”

The mass awareness campaign led by Gupta led to a behavioural change. According to Sharma, the impact of awareness is such that people now feel ashamed in defecating in the open. “Women played an important role – when they saw others using in-house toilets, they asked their husbands to build one for them as well,” the sarpanch said. “Now there is a toilet in each house. Whenever a new house is constructed, a toilet is the first thing to be built. Women have become very conscious and they ensure it is taken seriously. People are now ready to walk some distance to fetch water for the toilet than defecate in the open.”

A welcome change
Sugna Devi struggled, but bore her troubles on the chin. What caused her pain was seeing her granddaughter, Rani, now 9, facing the same problem as she had for more than 80 years. “Jab tak chhori ghar na aa jati, badi pareshani rehti (I was always worried whenever my granddaughter went out),” she said.

A 3ft x 3ft structure, constructed in her house last year, has completely changed her life. The family’s first toilet, partitioned with a door, stands out. While the rest of the house is made of rough bricks, the toilet is properly constructed, well covered and is relatively clean. “I did not know how it was affecting our health. When sarpanchji told us that toilets were to be built in the houses, we could not believe it. It is covered. We don’t feel ashamed any longer.”
Devi has even taken to training her toddler grandson to use the toilet the family has built. “Ab to bada sukh-suvidha ho gaye hai. Paani ki ek baalti hi to lagti hai (It has become convenient for all),” she said.

There is a problem with very old and sick people, and young children. We are solving it by creating awareness. Now people are aware enough that even if someone defecates in the open, it is disposed of properly in the toilet.

Vivek Kumar Arora CEO of rural development department, Churu

Devi’s neighbour Sanjna Meghwal, 55, too, had defecated in the open for years. Later, the family built a ‘sukhi khui’ (dry well) in the house. “We used the well for weeks and when it was filled, we used to cover it and dig another one. But it was never safe. Either we had to wake up early or control ourselves till it was suitably dark to defecate. We were always worried of someone looking. It was quite insulting,” said Meghwal, who lives with her youngest son. “But now everything is clean. We were not aware what dirt we were living in earlier. Our health is also better now.”

Devi added, “Pehle to bahar jaana hota thha. Hamesha dar thha koi dekh na le. Poora din rok ke rakhna padta thha. Bachche bhi bahut bimar padte thhe. Ulti, dast laga rehta thha. (Earlier, when we used to go out, we were always worried that someone might be watching. We had to wait for sundown. Children also used to fall ill frequently, getting diarrhea or vomiting. But not any more).”

About 20 km from Lunas is Baniyala village in Raiyatunda panchayat. For one of its residents, Meera Devi, 40, the shame of defecating in the fields was too much to bear. “Initially, village elders hesitated and resisted spending so much on constructing toilets. They found it a waste of money. A lot of effort was put in to tell them about the significance of building toilets. They agreed only when the sarpanch said he would bear the cost,” said the mother of two.
Sunita Swamy, a local health worker at Lunas, said young children in the block do not suffer from diseases like diarrhea, typhoid and skin problems any more, which was very common earlier. “It was very difficult to teach them the importance of using the toilet,” she said.

Discharging the waste
Most toilets built in the block use the government-approved method of two-pit system. Gupta explained that unlike the traditional one-pit system, this system is cost-effective and does not harm the environment. “Our main purpose was that the waste does not come in contact with air and flies, and it should not get mixed with surface water. This system works fine. Two pits are created along with the toilet. One pit takes four to five years to get filled. After the first one gets filled, the solid waste starts getting collected in the second pit. Meanwhile, the waste collected in the first pits gets decomposed and can be later used as manure by villagers. It is a covered system and is organic, so does not harm the environment at all,” says Gupta, who is working hard to replicate the model in Pali district.

In Bhanwari village of Pali, toilets have been built in all households in just 25 days with the help of locals.

The challenges
The district administration provided '9,100 to each household under NBA and MNREGS. People, however, spent more than '15,000 from their pockets to build good quality toilets. In Taranagar, most families were convinced of the value of the toilet. While many of them took great initiative and willingly spent '15,000 to '20,000 on the toilet without waiting for the sanctioned money from the government, toilets were also built with contributions from village heads.

Then there are some like Bishna Ram, 48, of Lunas village, who took a loan to build a toilet at his home. “We were told the need and importance of it. I did not have enough money so I took a loan to build it. The reimbursement from the government was delayed and was spent in repaying the loan.”
Pointing at another big problem, he said the money given by the government was much less than the actual cost of construction of a toilet.

“A single brick costs '6. Around 2,000 bricks are required to build a toilet and a bathroom (3ft x 3ft each). And there is an additional cost of cement and labour. The government reimburses just '9,100 for this.”

He said it was difficult to replicate the work in other districts or blocks unless this gap was filled.

The monetary help is given under India’s rural sanitation campaign, NBA, to eliminate open defecation by 2022. Households are asked to build a toilet and provide a photographic proof of it to the district authorities to get a reimbursement for '9,100 – of the amount, '4,600 comes from NBA and the remaining '4,500 from MNREGS.

Many villagers, however, said that while they had built toilets and were using them, they did not get the '9,100 that they were entitled to, even months after the completion of work. “To make it a success, it is very important that the first installment should be sent in the account to buy building material and then the other one immediately after the work is completed – like they reimburse under the Indira Awaas Yojana,” said Bishna Ram. “It was possible to do it in our village. But not everyone is willing to pay from his pocket. People are scared whether money will ever be sanctioned.”

Sharma also agreed that delayed payments were a concern and could discourage poorer families in other areas from building toilets. “We wanted our village to be ODF and thus made extra efforts for that. I had the money, so I paid for the toilets. But not all are willing to take this risk,” he said. He is hopeful that MP and MLA funds could come handy in achieving the same in other districts. “Now the prime minister has asked MPs and MLAs to give money from their fund for construction of toilets in villages. If that is implemented in true spirit, other districts would also become ODF.”

Another big problem in the district is that of water shortage. Many bring water from outside to use in the toilets. Vivek Kumar Arora, CEO of the rural development department, Churu district, said Taranagar block has set an example for other districts to follow. It has the problem of water shortage but still people have adopted the habit of using toilets. “The groundwater level is really low. Providing water for flushing is a big task. We are trying to achieve that through other schemes,” he said.

The government officials are also keeping a close eye on people to ensure they use toilets and do not defecate in the open at all. The team of field staff consists of a health worker, an aanganwadi worker, a gram sewak and some villagers to keep a watch. They regularly monitor and give continuous feedback to government officials.

“We have found that there is a problem with very old and sick people, and young children. It was difficult to find a solution for this problem immediately. We are solving it by creating awareness. Now people are aware enough that even if they defecate in the open, it is disposed in the toilet,” Arora said. The department has not conducted any impact study but the number of deaths due to diseases like diarrhea, typhoid and malaria has become almost
nil, he added.

Sardarshahar and Rajgarh are the other blocks in the district which are close to achieving the target of ODF. But, Arora said, the ODF tag does not come easy: “It’s not just about constructing toilets, but also about all residents stopping open defecation and adopting the habit of using a toilet.”

If Sugna Devi can change her habit of 80 years, impossible is nothing for the rest.




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