Left Behind – A Toilet Story…


Zishan Jiwani is an Indicorps 2011 Fellow partnered with Grampari in Maharasthra. This column was first published May 7, on the Grampari blog.


Zishan with Baban and Lilabai, owners of a newly built toilet.

When I got the news that I was going to Abhepuri, a village in the western part of the Indian state of Maharashtra, for a sanitation project, I logged on to the Internet and checked out Abhepuri’s toilet stats. The Indian government runs a savvy website which has village-by-village statistics for the number of household and community latrines. What I found took me by surprise. Abhepuri won the Nirmal Gram Puraskar (clean village award) in 2009, meaning every household is suppose to have an individual latrine or have access to one and the village is supposed to open defecation free. Villages receive a substantial cash prize for achieving this milestone. That was a bit confusing but I figured, I’ll see when I get there.

When I got there, I had a list of 15 households either without toilets or without functional toilets. As the days and weeks went on, that number kept growing. In all out of the 200+ households in Abhepuri, at least 46 households don’t have a latrine and likely practice open defecation. I also learned that many of the BPL families who were listed on the website as having built toilets had built incomplete ones. For example, the village came in three years ago and built Narmada Gole’s toilet up to the point of installing her seat. No walls were built, no door and no roof. Until recently, she didn’t bother to complete it either.

Narmada’s toilet went unused for 5 years.

I was flabbergasted. How did this village win the Nirmal Gram Puraskar? I asked my host family. My host mom, Vaishali Gimvekar, said, “Big people wanted the prize so they made it happen.” After asking around a bit more I found out that the way they made it happen was by painting names of families without toilets on to ones with toilets. For example, my host family’s name is painted on to our neighbor’s toilet, meaning that toilet is shared. “There was cheating”, said Rahul Deshmane who until very recently was also without a toilet in his home. To be fair, Adinath Gourav, the village peon, made the arrangements so that the village could receive the prize said that he had hoped maybe people would make arrangements to share the toilets whereby the family with the toilets would charge a small amount for its usage to others. For the most part that didn’t work out.

Abhepuri isn’t the only village where toilets are missing. The Ministry of Rural Development claims that more than 87 million toilets have been built in the past decade. However, a recent national census found that close to 52 million households had toilets in 2011 according to The Telegraph newspaper. Meaning the number of missing toilets exceeds 35 million assuming that a number of people had toilets prior to 1999. The Minister of Rural Development agreed that the government’s claims were inflated and there were far fewer toilets built since 1999 than 87 million.

Two years later after winning the Nirmal Gram Puraskar, Abhepuri’s women approached Grampari, the NGO where I am currently engaged, to assist them in building toilets. They cited it as one of the biggest problems facing the village. Given that the rocky terrain of the area and heavy rainfall, it is incredibly difficult for women to use the latrine during the rainy season, which lasts four months.

Grampari’s approach is a community-led bottom up approach. Before announcing a program or subsidy to spur toilet construction, we began with visiting households discussing the issue with families. Once we felt that adequate information was acquired then we announced a small subsidy along with technical assistance open to all families of Abhepuri without a toilet. Additionally, the program requires that families build a tippy tap, a low-cost, hands-free, hand-washing device. Finally, our goal is continue engaging the family until the usage of the toilet begins.

I admit it may not be possible for the central government to provide such minute attention to each village. However, it can do a better job of monitoring to keep village governments honest. Rather than visiting on an appointed day where the village cleans its streets, decorates the walls (as it happened in Abhepuri), the government evaluators can come unannounced and ask to speak to individual families. Moreover, it is also necessary to keep checking to see if open defecation is occurring and if it is, then the government ought to demand that village return the prize money. These are small and easy steps that can greatly improve the government scheme — until then families will continue to get left behind.

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