Wonder what open defecation in its most bizarre form can do to a place? Come, visit Sheragada block of Ganjam district
Prasanna Mohanty | October 17, 2012
Editor's note: As the toilet vs temple debate rages on, fanned by Narendra Modi's statement and the Congress's immediate retaliation, we revisit a story on toilets – rather, the lack ot it – and why, how they more important than we think they are in India's growth story. This story was first published in October 2012 – both on web and the print issue – was reported as part of Governance Now's six-month project with ANSA-SAR to find out the reality of the 'Other India'. As part of the exercise, four GN correspondents spent six months in four selected blocks in different states. You can read the Reports from Other India here.
It will be prudent of Odisha’s tourism department to carry a warning along with its catchy invitation to the tourists that describes the state as ‘The Soul of Incredible India!’ – keep away from chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s home district Ganjam, especially his home constituency Hinjlicut in the district.
If, by sheer misfortune, you step into Sheragada, one of the two blocks that constitute the Hinjlicut assembly segment, you will be overpowered by a strong stink that can make you pass out instantly. Escaping hospitalisation can only be a stroke of luck. Impossible to visualise unless you have seen it and a truly bizarre sight to behold, the entire block is actually an open public toilet. Recall VS Naipaul describing India of the 1960s in An Area of Darkness: “Indians defecate everywhere. They defecate, mostly, beside the railway tracks. But they also defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the streets; they never look for cover…” He never visited Sheragada. Had he been, his description would have been more savaging.
Sheragada is at the centre of Ganjam, a coastal district in south bordering Andhra Pradesh, with a pronounced influence of Telugu culture and lifestyle. To reach it (which we wouldn’t advise) you will have to take NH 217, connecting Gopalpur (known for its quaint beach) in Ganjam with Raipur in Chhattisgarh. Forty kilometres down the highway, at Syamalai Chowk, a two-lane metalled road going left (State Highway No 36) connects the highway with the Sheragada block headquarters. A signboard says the distance is 14 km. The road is fine, flanked on either side by green paddy fields. By the time you have taken a full glance at the rural setting, the stink hits you. If you survive the first blast, you will notice the source of the stink – human faeces covering much of the road. Not the road sides, mind you, which are covered with grass. Not even the fields that are spread out on either side and green with standing crops of paddy and sugarcane. Only the metalled road is a public toilet. Don’t ever take the smaller roads that connect or lead to villages. Those are completely covered with faeces. (The taxiwalla will not agree in any case.) The gain from MNREGS can be debated, what can’t is the usefulness of roads and check dams, especially its cemented parts, that have been built under it. They provide excellent perch for defecation.
Good on paper
Officially, almost every house has a toilet. A survey by the district water and sanitation mission (DWSM), which is in the process of being compiled, shows that of 10,015 BPL households in the block, 9,988 have got toilets built by the government. Of 8,967 APL households, 5,286 have their own toilets. The block has 140 schools, of which 137 have toilets. The record is not so good for anganwadi centres (AWC) with just 19 of 192 having toilets and 40 more in the process of being added.
The data is difficult to disapprove of. Random checks in several villages show that toilets have indeed been provided to most of the BPL families. Villagers and social activists don’t dispute it either. The problem is hardly anybody uses those toilets. The tradition of defecating in the open, and in groups, is so strong that almost all the toilets the government has provided under total sanitation campaign (TSC) since early 2000 are simply lying unused and wasted. In Sarangi Palli village in Bandhaguda panchayat for example, Duryodhan Nayak got a toilet built a few yards away from his house along the village road about a year-and-half ago. A look at it suggests that it was never used. His wife, Pramila Nayak, explains why: “It is getting dirty and is located close to the house.” Ask her how is the road she is using as toilet any better and she will just lower her gaze and keep quiet.
Sarpanch of Takarada panchayat Jyotish Nayak says people don’t want to defecate at a place close to their homes. That is why the roads used for defecation are always far away from houses. More honest villagers will tell you that it is sheer “habit” and “tradition” of the community, used to as they are to defecate in the open for centuries. Those familiar with the village life will vouch that defecation, especially in the evening hours, is as much a social function. Men and women, boys and girls move out in groups, catching up with day’s gossips and sharing their daily grind even as they walk away from the village to relieve themselves. They defecate and move to the nearby water source to clean themselves. Flushing is not part of the ritual, which is what is stopping them now from using low-cost toilets provided to them. Only in late night hours some may be found carrying buckets to clean themselves, but not flush. And none bothers to look for cover or cover himself/herself when vehicles pass by with their headlights on.
But a wind of change is blowing. There is a growing realisation that defecating on the roads is not something to be proud of. Police have put up signboards warning that defecating on the road is “illegal and banned”. These signboards came up after the chief minister visited the area.
Two local social activists, Arun Tripathy and Siddharth Sahu, tell Governance Now that one day in October 2011, Naveen Patnaik was being driven down to Sheragada. (Sheragada block was added to Hinjlicut assembly segment during the delimitation of 2009). This was unusual as Patnaik normally uses choppers for travel. After returning to Bhubaneswar, he called the district collector and asked him how 30-ft-wide roads have got reduced to 10-feet ones. The collector got into the act and started a campaign to keep the roads clean. Public meetings and rallies followed. Schoolchildren, anganwadi and health workers, civil society groups and panchayat members were roped in. The administration promised individual toilets, community toilets and government land on the outskirts of villages for defecation. More enlightened villagers and NGOs picketed even as police took evening rounds to dissuade people from defecating on the roads. But everything fizzled out in a few months. When rains came and paddy and sugarcane were sown in July, people were back on the main roads.
So now once all efforts have come to naught, how does the administration plan to overcome the problem? Block development officer Manoj Kumar Swain says the administration has worked out two strategies: (a) to extend toilets to such APL families as small and marginal farmers who are not included in BPL list but are now eligible along with disabled and women-headed families (as per the central government’s directive) and (b) build community latrines. The community latrines will have 10 toilets each for men and women, on the village outskirts for which the village will have to contribute 10 percent cost (the rest will be paid by DWSM) and also pay a user fee of Rs 10 per month per family – the funds thus accumulated would be used to employ people to keep the toilets clean. These community toilets will have five-ft high walls but no roof. The district administration had built community toilets elsewhere outside Sheragada block but they too failed because nobody bothered to keep them clean. There was no water supply to these toilets either. Therefore, this time, there will be a tank with every community toilet and someone to keep it clean, Swain says.
To this rural development department has added a third strategy. In order to increase public participation, it has directed that construction of toilets under the individual household latrine (IHHL) scheme – under which now individual beneficiaries will be given Rs 9,100, of which MNREGS will contribute Rs 4,500 and the beneficiary will add Rs 900, taking the total cost to Rs 10,000 – will be the beneficiaries’ responsibility. Twenty beneficiaries will form a group and select a leader to do the running around. The state has been engaging NGOs and contractors to built toilets since early 2000 with little gain.
SN Tripathy, secretary, rural development, who looks after rural water and sanitation drive, says the focus will now shift to two activities – (a) launch a campaign to mobilise people to cover up faeces with earth after defecation, as per the central government’s directive and (b) launch education/awareness campaign to change the toilet habits of people through various means.
Even a casual look at the toilets that have been built will show why they are wasting. Most of the toilets are without covers. Just a bare structure to sit and defecate. These are in front of the houses along the common village road and present an ugly sight. Villagers explain how some people descended one fine day, set up the structures and went away. In some cases, a separate structure has been erected on the “side”, roofless and open in the front. These are connected to pits but require flushing, something the villagers are not used to. Cleaning the faeces is not in their ritual. How can they let faeces collect in front or side of their houses to stink?
Besides, village-level “palli” sabhas, detailed discussions with block officials and panchayat functionaries show that sanitation is not in anybody’s priority list. The absence of awareness about hygiene and a proper sewage system have turned the villagers against the modern, low-cost and ugly toilets that are being “given” to them. They wonder how these toilets are any better. A toilet within the house may be comforting to the urban elites but a very repulsive thought to the villagers. So is defecating in front or near the house. Many APL families with toilets in their backyards are religiously avoided by the elders, though not by the new generation.
Unless villagers understand the benefits of good toilet practices and are convinced about the usefulness of the alternatives being provided, the sanitation mission is bound to fail. Sheragada block is a good example. Targets have been, more or less, met, but not the objective. After all, it is a fight against centuries old tradition and habit.
(Prasanna Mohanty was deputy editor of Governance Now at the time)
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