It is a classic case of life pre-empting art and outdoing it. The story of Rajkumari, Saroj and Gomati, from Lashkar, a small village near Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, is like something straight out of a movie. These three women got together and built the first public toilet in their village, and they did it on their own, without waiting for the government or their husbands.
In “Toilet — Ek Prem Katha”, the recent Bollywood flick starring Akshay Kumar and Bhumi Pednekar, the plot revolves around a man’s decision to build a toilet for his wife. One of the key scenes in the movie takes place when Jaya, the film’s protagonist, finds out that her in-laws’ house does not have — you guessed it — a toilet. The scene begins with the in-laws waking up the newly-wed bride by saying “Bhabhi, sava chaar ho gaye, sab intejaar kar rahe hain, lota party mein tumhare welcome ka.” (It’s 4:30 in the morning, everyone is waiting to welcome you to the utensil party.) The lota or utensil is a euphemism for open defecation, a prevalent practice in many villages in North India; the woman, of course, storms out of the house. She is unwilling to undergo the indignity and humiliation of defecating in the open.
For Rajkumari, Saroja and Gomati, the real-life counterparts of “Toilet — EPK’s” female protagonist Jaya, a lack of sanitation was about more than dignity. The women in their village had always used the nearby fields and hills to defecate. What concerned them was the health and safety, particularly of their children. Their children were constantly falling ill with diseases like diarrhoea, dysentery, etc, which were easily preventable. Many of the young girls and women were often afraid to step out of the household after dark. The girls were confined to the house, and every excursion outside brought with it the possibility of contracting a disease or the fear of assault.
Lashkar, the village where the three women are from, is not ‘backward’; it has nominal access to electricity and the nearest urban centre, Gwalior, is just a few hours away. A typical Indian village by all means, what Lashkar lacks are toilets.
For a generation of urbanised Indians, it is hard to imagine life without access to basic sanitation. To them, the lack of toilets in India’s villages, or the villager’s reluctance to construct a toilet can seem like a particularly Indian quiddity — a result of age-old customs and irrational behaviour. Movies like ‘Toilet — EPK’ promote this narrative, the idea that the only thing standing in the way of an Open Defecation Free (ODF) India is the ‘Indian mentality.’
The reality of sanitation at the grassroots, however, is far more complex. The toilets constructed by the government often fall into disuse: the location is less than ideal, the facility itself is not maintained and there is no running water. Even government schemes that promise to reimburse families for costs incurred in constructing a toilet overlook one key aspect: finance.
In a village in India, the construction of a toilet can cost upwards of ₹15,000. For most people who come from working-class backgrounds, like many of the families in Lashkar, this represents a substantial chunk of their livelihood. Families like that of Rajkumari’s, with two daughters, are acutely aware of their lack of access to basic sanitation but do not have the money to change the situation. Those who do construct a toilet, often at a significant cost, run the risk of falling into a debt trap without external support.
Gomati, Rajkumari and Saroj faced a similar predicament: constructing a toilet in Lashkar would cost ₹ 14,000 and none of them had the capital required at hand. That is when the three women approached a local NGO that put them in touch with Rang De, an organisation that provides low-cost loans to borrowers in need.
A low-cost sanitation loan, designed to be repaid over the course of a year, allowed the women to proceed with constructing a toilet. And within a month after the loan was disbursed, Lashkar had its first public toilet. Unlike “Toilet — EPK” where the female protagonist storms out of the house while her husband comes around to save the day, Gomati, Rajkumar and Saroj brought about a silent revolution in the village. And unlike the movie, they had fought against a far more ubiquitous force than societal prejudice: they had struggled against a lack of access to finance.
On a visit to the village a year later, some members of the Rang De team dropped by Gomati’s house. The toilet she had helped build had brought about a qualitative and lasting change in the lives of the families; Rajkumari’s daughters were ill far less often than before and the monsoons were no longer an inconvenience. For the women in the village, the presence of a public toilet in the village robbed the darkness of its terror. More importantly, Saroj confided in us, the families were no longer ashamed or hesitant to invite out-of-town relatives home. A toilet in the village meant that people could stay the night.
Gomati, Rajkumari and Saroj had brought about a lasting change in their village and they did not need their husbands or the government to do it for them. They did it on their own, through sheer force of their will. They had struggled against the odds and they had won.