How it began at Abhinav

Despite emotional, social and bureaucratic roadblocks, founder of the NGO Abhinav, Mr. Harendra Singh’s mission to help the community never faded. Here is his story.

Harendra Singh always had a passion for reading and writing, which lead to his main profession – journalism. He was curious about current affairs and the issues faced by the rural people in Uttar Pradesh (UP), and this was the catalyst in his laying the foundation stone for Abhinav in 1993. During his career in journalism, he worked for a newspaper as a columnist. As part of his work, he would travel across various villages in and around UP to collect stories and experiences of the villagers and their lifestyles.

His interactions with villagers gave him sleepless nights, as he empathized with their problems and felt irresponsible if he did not act. Rural areas had multiple issues stemming from improper and unhygienic toilets, like sanitation, and a lack of women’s safety. Girls had to defecate outdoors at the crack of dawn, and many girls would drop out of school because of a lack of hygienic sanitation facilities.

Harendra Singh wanted to change the scenario, but his inexperience in the social sector made him unsure, and delayed his work even more. He started identifying some of his friends who would be interested in the cause, and spoke to them about starting some activities and creating awareness. Initially, his friends were slightly skeptical, as they were apprehensive about how people would react, whether there would be any cooperation from the public, and whether they would even be heard.

Following a lot of self-doubt and questioning, in the year 1993, Harendra Singh and his seven friends (who wish to remain anonymous) started their field work by gathering around 10 people from Muzzafarnagar. They interacted with them to understand their issues, and took their opinion on an approach which would solve them.

“Sab ne bola ki unko toilet chahiye. Unke ghar ke aurat bahar nahi jaa sakte, aur usse bahut dikkat ho rahi thi (“Many mentioned their need for a toilet in their houses as the women of their household could not go out and this was a major problem”),” says Harendra Singh.

In the year 2000, after much research and a survey, he came across the Integrated Low Cost Sanitation (ILCS) scheme, which was also being encouraged by the government, to implement sanitation solutions in rural areas. He wanted to start immediately, but a lack of funds pulled him back. He immediately applied for funding to the government for the same, and after much effort (Harendra Singh says obtaining funding from the government is a task in itself), the government consented within a few months.

He identified communities across villages in Muzaffarnagar which had low income, inadequate food intake, where living conditions which were overcrowded, and there was rampant use of open fires for cooking. In one of the communities, named Meerapur, people were using wet toilets next to their homes. A wet toilet has neither walls nor a roof. A wet toilet was just a pit which would be covered every day after people have defecated in it. Women would use these as they could not go out into the fields during the day. This also gave rise to diseases due to unhygienic conditions prevailing in the compound – since mostly open cooking was followed, mosquitoes and house flies from these toilets would settle on the food.

Harendra Singh interviewed 18 families and made them aware of the ILCS program. He told me about how most of them were not agreeing to his plan as they had to dismantle and let go of some space in their compound to build a toilet. “They were worked up, and never gave in for the same. They thought we were fooling them. We counseled them, and told them clearly about the plan from scratch. And when one person in the village agreed, others automatically did. Later, the womenfolk were grateful to the program as it gave them convenience, safety, and hygiene.”

I was curious about the maintenance of these toilets, since it is a rural area and since anything given for free is not valued. I learned about the ‘component sharing’ approach. Abhinav follows this approach to help the communities develop a sense of ownership and empowerment on taking responsibility of the infrastructure and cleanliness.
The community is given the responsibility of financing and managing the internal components of a toilet such as lane sewers and secondary sewer systems, while the government funds external components like treatment and disposal work. I would not have believed in this approach had I not seen for myself a toilet which was neatly washed, painted and well-ventilated.

Abhinav (a Hindi word which means ‘novel’ in English) has been working in various fields other than just sanitation, including youth employment, women empowerment and farmers clubs. It has also contributed to reducing the crime rate amongst the youth of Uttar Pradesh by focusing their attention away from distractions and towards work and employment opportunities.

“Although I’m 44 years old, I feel I still have a lot to give back to society. Sometimes it makes me restless as there is a lot to do and there is very little time.” These lines sum up Harendra Singh’s never-ending passion, which has been creating an impact in and around Muzaffarnagar since 1993.

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