No Toilet, No Bride

By Dr P R Prasad


Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh has urged women not to marry into families that do not have toilets in their homes. He is on Nirmal Bharat Yatra and has cited a slogan coined by the Haryana government, “No toilet, no bride”. The Nirmal Bharat Yatra (Clean India Journey) will pass through five states beginning from Gujarat and ending in Bihar. Vidya Balan, the Brand Ambassador, is likely to come to Bettiah in Bihar on 19th November where the Yatra will culminate. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar is expected to be present as well.

Jairam Ramesh had earlier kicked up a row by stating that there are more temples than toilets in India. However, defecating in the open is a major social issue in India representing women’s rights, health and hygiene, and the clash between traditional and modern lifestyles. Reportedly, 60 – 70% of rural women are forced to defecate in the open. Women will not go in the open during the day so they must visit the fields before dawn and then wait many hours again until after dusk. Walking barefoot in the fields is known to be bad for catching tapeworm, bacteria and many other diseases. According to the 2011 census, about 131 million households in India have no latrine in their premises, with eight million using public facilities and 123 million defecating in the open. Among those with an indoor toilet, 800,000 households use a bucket device cleaned by humans and 500,000 use containers left out for animals to eat from.

No doubt the problem of defecating in the open is acute in rural india and it is the women who suffer the most. In recent times more and more women have started protesting against lack of toilet facilities. Anita Bai Narre left husband Shivram’s home in a Village in Betul District of Madhya Pradesh two days after her marriage in May last year because the house had no toilet. She returned eight days later after Shivram, a daily wage worker, built one with savings and aid from villagers. Sulabh International announced a $10,000 reward for Mrs Narre for her “brave” decision and forcing her husband to build a toilet.

Priyanka Bharti’s spotlessly clean toilet in the village Vishnupur Khurd in Uttar Pradesh is seen as a symbol of empowerment of Indian women. Priyanka, a young bride, just after four days walked out of her new marital home when she was appalled to find she had to defecate in the open. Sulabh International, when learnt about her protest, built the toilet and also presented her Rs. 200,000 ($3,600) prize.

These are some of the examples of growing awareness against defecating in the open. Sikkim has become the first state in the country to be free from open defecation while Kerala is expected to achieve the status by November. Himachal Pradesh will fall in that category by March 2013 and Haryana by March 2014.

A PTI report says Around 96 lakh households in rural areas of Bihar do not have toilets and people travel to far-flung areas to relieve themselves under the open sky. According to a survey conducted by the state Public Health Engineering Department, about 95.96 lakh households, out of which 49.19 lakh belong to Below Poverty Line (BPL) category, still do not have toilets at their homes. The report suggests that private toilet facilities were available to around 90,400 BPL families in Bihar during 2004-05. But, after the Nitish Kumar government came to power in November 2005, the pace of construction of toilets speeded up and now altogether 12.70 lakh BPL families are enjoying toilet facilities at their homes.

The unit cost of the latrines being constructed for individual families in rural areas, anganwadi centres and schools under National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has been enhanced to Rs. 10,000. This became possible as the benefits under NREGP and National Sanitation Mission have been synchronised. While a sum of Rs. 4,500 is being provided per unit under the NREGS, another Rs. 4,300 is ensured from National Sanitation Mission. The balance of Rs. 1,200 is to be contributed by the beneficiary.

Recently, a Gandhi Satyagraha padyatra was organized by Gandhi Shodh Sansthan in Champaran to revive the Gandhian spirit of self-reliance, dignity of work, ahimsa, honesty, and peaceful coexistence. The padyatra also aimed to identify local needs and problems through a series of interactions with the local communities.

The walkers of the padyatra had to make their way through human excreta that lined their path. The marchers raised the issue at community interactions. The community said that even though the government had announced a grant of Rs 10,000 for toilet construction, there were few takers because of lower-level officials demanding bribes. During one of the meetings, some school students said, “If these government officials force us to defecate in the open, shouldn’t we use their space as toilets?” And that resulted in a new kind of satyagraha being mooted:

The plan is simple and straightforward. Entire village communities will apply for toilet subsidies according to the existing norms. If the applications are not processed according to the norms, they will inform the district and state administration of the same in writing. If any official asks for a bribe, the village community will set a date for an “eating out”, following which the official will experience the sight and smell of human excrement in front of his office and homes. Outrageous? “It’s supposed to be,” said Sumati Devi, a village woman from Bhitiharwa. “We will send them a notice in writing, and they can ask the policemen to arrest us for committing “public nuisance”, but even if we are in jail, our kids and neighbours will continue to deposit “early morning gifts” on their doorsteps. The fellows who demand bribe have disabled the government program. How can a poor man with no funds build a toilet with a third of the money siphoned off?”

“I don’t think this is bizarre or outrageous. How can we say we respect our country and our state if we are so corrupt that we force people to shit in the open? If you prevent the poor from having toilets, and they have to defecate outside their doors, then, why shouldn’t they use your toilets or other facilities to relieve themselves?” asked another person.

It is unfortunate that on one hand the government is giving out money for constructing toilets and on the other its own staff are forcing people to pay bribe or defecate in the open.