Giving the Squat a Push
MIRZAPUR, India, 16 November 2012 at 17:24 | By Atul Kumar
Eleven year old Sharda and his group of friends go around the dusty lands of their village, Lalapur, beating their drums and chanting their slogans. As they go down the narrow lanes, they make a cacophony of noise to ensure that their voices are heard. They have a message and a purpose: to make their village free from open defecation. Every fortnight or so, this band of eight or nine boys start a morning with their broken drums, with spirited enthusiasm.
“Adopt hygienic practices, say goodbye to diseases” is a loose translation of one of their slogans. Another catchy slogan is “Daughters and mothers not to go to the fields (to defecate), let us protect their dignity (by having toilets)”.
Lalapur, the village where these children live, is located in the Northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which is the most populated in the country, with 200 million people. Here, according to the Government survey, less than 36% of households have toilets. This means that about 130 million people do not have access to sanitation facilities and have to defecate in the open. The situation is even more difficult in Lalapur, where 95% of the population belong to a socially excluded and marginalized community.
Sharda and his group of friends study in the local government primary school, which has started introducing many good practices of hygiene and cleanliness in the lives of young children. For instance, the pre-school centre within the school compound has a baby-friendly toilet. With a ventilated door at an eye level, the baby feels the comfort and security at this young age. Children of all classes now understand the importance of using toilets and washing their hands with soap, and they are triggering change as they go back home and ask their families for toilets and soap.
“For centuries, people of this region have been defecating in the open. But, now that the children have begun using toilets in schools, the habit is breaking. And, hopefully this will change the practice in future,” says Ram Narayan Maurya, the Head Master of the Upper Primary School in Lalapur.
Lalapur is a small hamlet of about 760 people. But the campaign to make this village free from open defecation was not easy. Changing mind-sets calls for serious efforts from all. This process started with mobilizing women and the youth.
The moving force behind this mobilization and persuasion is Rishikesh Singh, the village headman. He found that with a continuous dialogue, people eventually see reason. “Today every house in Lalapur has a toilet and is using it.”, says the 45 year old community leader.
He explains that the villagers faced many obstacles in the days of open defecation. Women had to go to the fields before the crack of dawn because once men were awake, women couldn’t go to the fields to defecate. And if any of the women had to answer nature’s call, it would be a hassle for them. There were also concerns of snake bites, scorpions and other insects.
Squatting with dignity at home is a blessing for 55 year old Rajwanti Devi, who has trouble walking. “I dreaded the thought of having to walk long distances to defecate in the open. Now everything is easier, we have a toilet at home and use it whenever I want”.
Rishikesh Singh also narrates a bitter truth about the life in this socially excluded hamlet. “People in this hamlet belong to a socially excluded community. There are times when other people don’t allow them to even defecate in their fields. And, with decreasing land, where do they go? It was important for them to make these toilets at home and actually use them”, he says.
Perhaps the most striking feature about this change in Lalapur is not just the construction of these toilets. Rather, it is the fact that the change has come from within the community. They asked for toilets, they worked to get them, and now they monitor their use. Many would say that this is perhaps a role model for ensuring sustainability.
Even though everyone in the village swear that they use their toilets and that no one defecates in the open now, Rishikesh Singh admits that there are some older folks who are resistant to change. “Most people use their toilets. They find them useful. However, there still are some old people who slip up and go out in the open,” says the community leader.
“The problem of open defecation in Uttar Pradesh is of great magnitude. It has serious implications on the health of children and the environment,” says Adele Khudr, Chief of UNICEF in Uttar Pradesh. “The success of Lalapur is an excellent example that can be replicated easily in other villages. Stopping open defecation will restore dignity of a community, which has been disadvantaged and marginalized for centuries,“ she adds.
In Lalapur, one can feel a great sense of achievement within this community. Women no longer have to wait for dark to defecate out in the open. They feel safe, secure and dignified, as they have all time access to a toilet at their home.
As for Sharda and his band, they have pledged to keep their village free of open defecation.