By Rakesh Agrawal for Youth Ki Awaaz:
For the last two years, 56-year-old Kamla Devi of Batoli village, Rudraprayag district, heads every morning for the forest to fetch oak leaves for her cows, with a sickle in one hand and a bottle of water in the other. One day, no sooner than she had squatted at what she thought was a safe spot to answer nature’s call, a leopard pounced upon her. Narrating the incident to YKA, she said she was terrified for a split second, but in spontaneous retaliation attacked the big cat with the sickle at hand. Kamla sustained grave wounds and had to be admitted to a hospital in the nearest town, but the leopard succumbed to its injuries.
Kamla was among the lucky ones. In August 2014, Guddi Devi of Maletha village and a young girl from the nearby Silos village in Pauri district died in similar circumstances.
The hazards that come with open defecation go much beyond the outbreaks of diarrhoea, typhoid and cholera and other deadly diseases. The isolated spots hill folks seek out to answer nature’s call are typically in the forests, and who else cohabitates the forests – wildlife, but naturally.
Leopard attacks are a fairly common occurrence in the Himalayan state, 71% of which is forest. In the first four months of this year itself, Uttarakhand has seen 16 deaths, besides injuries to two dozen people, owing to leopards. Vulnerability to leopard attacks in Uttarakhand villages makes it all the more urgent and important that every home in the state has a toilet. Of course, it’s not just wildlife that’s a threat. Lonely, isolated spots are also stamping grounds of sexual predators.
A media report noted that according to a Swachh Bharat Mission Gramin report, more than 20% of the rural population in the state continues to answer nature’s call in the open. In 2014, the number stood at over 25%. The government, NGOs and concerned groups are doing their bit. But in the past two years, about 3,48,000 individual household latrines have been built in the state. These are government funded, and the target is 3,95,000.
NGOs and concerned groups have played a key role in creating access to toilets. For instance, Himmotthan, which is based in Dehradun, has been working to ease the twin problems of water and sanitisation in hilly villages. Tehri Garhwal, one of the biggest districts in the state, is reaping the benefits of such endeavours. Churendhar village in the district has a solar-powered water pump alongside low-cost toilets. Prabha Negi, 41, a resident of the village, told YKA she was relieved at having a toilet at home as she need not go to the forest, risking her life any longer.
Another Dehradun-based NGO, Samhita, has got 18 toilets built in six flood-hit villages of Tehri district in June 2013. Three of the toilets were built in schools. Beena Walia, senior programme officer of Samhita, told YKA more than 200 villagers and 325 children have benefited by getting access to toilets. The construction of toilets also provided an income to 45-odd villagers who helped build the toilets.
To build and maintain these bio-toilets (because a sewerage network in hills is impractical), Samhita has joined hands with a grassroots group, Yusuf Meherally Centre.
Maati Sansthan, another village-based group has built toilets in four villages near the picturesque Munsiyari town in Pithoragarh district. The group operates nearly 25 homestays in these villages and the villagers are elated at getting toilets to use. Kamala Pande, 52, owner of one of the homestays in Talla (Upper) Sarmoli village, two kilometres from Munsiyari, expressed relief that now villagers didn’t have to defecate in the open.
A few committed individuals have also taken on the challenge of building toilets in the villages of Uttarakhand. Jagdambha Dobhal, a senior teacher at the government inter college in Dudhali village, Dehradun district, inspired his students to do community service in accordance with the central government’s National Service Scheme. Student volunteers joined hands with villagers and built toilets by digging three-foot deep soak pits and concrete enclosures. Dobhal told YKA that each toilet thus built cost only 1,500 INR. They took about four hours to build and would last at least five years.
Yet, for all the progress being made, superstition still obstructs the efforts to bring about total sanitation in the state. This July, eight villages in Uttarkashi district saw people destroying toilets built by Swajal, a government organisation, as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Villagers believe their gram devta (village deity) was angry with them for blocking his entry into the village by constructing the toilets, and this anger was manifested in the form of some villagers falling ill, Umesh Dobhal, a 49-year-old resident of Mathali village, told YKA. With such mindsets prevailing in these villages, government officials wonder how they will achieve their target of building about 350 toilets in the area, by 2019.
The Government of India has allocated 9000 crores towards improvement of sanitation across the country. Yet, access to toilets, cleanliness of toilets in public spaces (from universities to marketplaces), as well as accessible toilets, are not up to the mark. Whether you are a student, working professional, a blogger, or stay-at-home mom, it’s important to speak up about sanitation (or the lack thereof) in our country. Share your toilet stories, along with the hashtag #InDeepShit!