It’s not just a toilet … but dignity for rural Uttar Pradesh

It was a 4-hour journey from Delhi to Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh (UP). I would not say it was long, because it never seemed so, thanks to the sugarcane fields, kids and even a few horses that kept me busy during the journey. Being a south Indian myself, I was not acquainted with fluent Hindi, leave alone the fluent Urdu that the people of UP converse in. Nevertheless, I could pave my way and blend in through the journey with the help of the bus conductor, who could understand what I was trying to say.

I reached Muzaffarnagar at around 2:30pm on the same day that I left. Since I heard a lot about the city’s crime rate and recent riots, I was cautious of every move and person around me. I was a little apprehensive and anxious while I was waiting for someone from the NGO Abhinav to receive me at the bus stop. I was not sure about breaking the ice with local people, with the impression that I had about the city. At the bus stop, I had to visit a washroom. When I saw a girl who was about the same age as me, I walked towards her and asked her to guide me to one. Her name was Afsana, and she was working in a store. She proudly told me she is the bread-winner in her family of four.

Based on my experience from my previous travels, I assumed that the restroom she was taking me to would be unclean and smelly. Afsana walked me into a small building around a 100 meters from the bus stop. Going by the greenery in the building, I thought she was probably taking me into an office or some complex. I realized I was wrong until I saw a board which said “Flush and Pride”.

It was a well-ventilated building made of red bricks, with separate cabins for kids and ladies. There was a changing and shower room, antiseptic hand washes on the wash basin, and a rosy fragrance. I was amazed when Afsana told me this was a public toilet. I ended up paying only Rs. 5 for a single use!

I walked back to the bus stop to meet Ms. Anju, who is also the project coordinator for Abhinav, which was, incidentally, responsible for the public toilet I had just used. Ms. Anju has been working with the NGO since its inception, and now plays a major role in the field work and in counseling villagers.

I applauded her for the amazing work I just witnessed in the middle of the city. The first question I asked her was how they could maintain a public toilet whose price of usage is so low. She informed me that while the NGO funds a major part of the initiative, they get funded by the government as well. When asked about how the NGO meet its costs for all the toilets, she told me that it is local donors who pitch in.

After a five-minute drive from the bus stop to Abhinav’s office, which is located on the Delhi by-pass road, I was welcomed by Mr. Harendra Singh, the organisation’s founder. In his late 40s (although he looks years younger than he is), he was full of enthusiasm to take me through their work. After a cup of tea and some snacks, he shared with me how and why the toilet I saw was built at that particular place.

“One day, my friend Seema and I were traveling to another city from Muzaffarnagar. Seema noticed a lady being shadowed by a man. That man looked uncomfortable. By then, I had already started building toilets in various communities across Muzaffarnagar. Seema stopped the car and found that the man was shadowing his wife as she had to attend nature’s call. When the man was asked to take her to a public toilet, he replied saying there was none nearby, and the ones which were present were in a horrendous state. He shared with them how he would rather take her to an open place because it’s more hygienic. Seema was taken aback. She immediately questioned me about why I hadn’t thought of building a public toilet. That question hit me hard. As I got back, I started figuring out the logistics required. Funds were a major problem. We had to chip in from our pockets initially, and then we approached the government for the same. When the government agreed to help with the construction, we had to take care of operation and maintenance. Mahavir Chowk is where this toilet has been built. This area was chosen after a survey informed us that around 30,000-35,000 people pass by it everyday.”

I could not agree more with him as I had personally visited and experienced the convenience of the location, the ambience and even its cleanliness! I then personally requested him to take me to a community where I can see a toilet built inside a home.

I met Husnara at Tavli village, which is 25kms away from Muzaffarnagar. Hushnara is 50 years old, and lives in House No. 344 of village Tavli, Baghra block, district Muzaffarnagar. Her husband died 15 years ago, and her family consists of 4 children, namely Musarrat, Heena, Aysha, and Naseeb, of ages 21, 19, 17, and 15, respectively. She works as a labourer to support her kids. Hushnara’s hard work helps her daughter, Musarrat learn sewing and embroidery work. Hushnara and Musarrat earn Rs. 1,800 to Rs 2,000 per month.

She does not have a toilet in the house due to which their family members have to defecate in open areas and nearby fields. She was teary-eyed when she shared with me how her daughters get eve-teased, and how it slowly started affecting their dignity and self-esteem. In bad weather, they used to defecate in a pit that she had dug in her house and lined with polythene to later discard the contents.

The Community Mobilization Team from Abhinav met her in one of their surveys, and told her about their plan to construct a toilet in her premises. “Maine socha, yeh log sirf bolenge aur karenge nahi. Par in logo ko bhagawan ne bheja hai aur dus din mein toilet ban gaya. Ab mere behen surakshit hein aur ammi bhi nahi darti.” (“I thought these guys would not do anything but just plan. I was wrong, since they followed up and actually built one within 10 days. They are God-sent. I worry no more, because my sisters are safe now and my mother doesn’t get scared”).

Many families like Husnara’s and communities like Tavli have been restored their dignity and self-respect with the help of Abhinav’s “Flush and Pride” campaign. Women shared with them how they could worry less after their encounter with Abhinav. This has not only eradicated the sanitation problem in rural areas, but there has been a consistent improvement in the health of the communities.

It has been accepted that improving sanitation has had a direct impact on the health and, in turn, the overall living standard of these people. It lowers health expenses, as the vicinity also becomes hygienic.
Abhinav has been a leader amongst the lives of these local people. From their ground work on workshops conducted for maintenance and proper use of toilets, to counseling the girls and ladies in the communities, their never-ending energy and enthusiasm to do more makes me speechless. While applauding Mr. Harendra Singh and his dedicated staff, I boarded the bus back to my destination, and realized that Abhinav’s visit and walk through their work was definitely growing on me.

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