By Satish Deshpande:
Translated by: Alka Gadgil
Eknath Abajee Tatale is a student of class 9, at the Khirbire Secondary Ashram School, Akole.
Eknath’s Ashramshala is situated in the Adivasi majority region of Ahmednagar district. The summer months are particularly taxing in this hilly region due to acute water scarcity. The Ashramshala at Khirbire had all the facilities that a boarding school is supposed to have. However, the toilet block remained largely unused as it lacked a water connection.
The boarders had no other option than to defecate in the bushes around the Ashramshala. Although campaigns on health and hygiene had been going on since long, the practice of open defecation continued as these messages remained only on paper and had no effect on the students. “Any change becomes permanent only when it comes from within”, Eknath realized and started talking about the issue among his classmates.
“Eknath is studying in 9th class but his understanding belies his age. The way he has carried out his campaign, the way the rest of the students respond to his call is amazing. He’s a great communicator. Whenever there’s a problem, students meet and discuss it. This change is very heartening and very important too”, shares School Principal R R Barse.
Eknath looks much younger than his age, but he doesn’t shy away from speaking to strangers. “In my school, there were toilets but they were not being used. Then we had a WASH programme in our school. I was convinced, I asked many questions and clarified all my doubts from the speakers,” he says. “I spoke to our Head Master about water connectivity; as the water fitting was completed, I stopped going out for defecation. I started using the toilet. Initially, students were reluctant to use it but we kept trying and now all of us use the toilet.”
People are not ready to adopt new behaviours; it takes time for them to get convinced. Eknath had to face resistance, his fellow students weren’t ready. But he continued to talk to them about the use of toilets, the practice of washing hands after defecation, and personal hygiene, and how these practices would keep them away from diseases. Slowly, Eknath started getting fellow campaigners. Looking at the way they were lauded by teachers, other students felt inspired and started adopting healthy practices.
‘The change did not occur overnight. Initially, students didn’t carry water inside the toilet. I informed them about dirty toilets and the diseases that can spring from them,” he says.
Most of the Adivasi students who were unaware of the usage of the toilet now know how to sit astride, they carry water and dispense it after use. His classmate Janabai is conducting a session in another class. Eknath’s clan has multiplied.
“Our Ashramshala was situated in an old building. It used to leak in the rainy season. We requested the Head Master to shift the school to the new building. All other students joined the demand. We were shifted to the new building which is more spacious, and the rooms are airy”.
Eknath and his friends now spread awareness in the schools situated in the vicinity of Khirbire. They hold a session on how to use the toilet, dispensing an adequate quantity of water after use, and washing hands after toilet use. Many among these students are not from a boarding school and reside at home. These non-boarders too have been made aware as to how to use and clean their toilets at home.
After reaching out to other schools, Eknath and his team visited the adjoining villages to spread awareness about toilets and hygiene. “Just as we conducted sessions in our school, we set out to convince the families about the importance of using the toilets. Majority of families have a constructed toilet at home, but many among them don’t use it. We try to talk to them about the importance of toilet use and how it’s linked to our health and well-being. Many of these families have started using the toilet. Open defecation is hazardous to health. Flies sitting on the faeces then sit on our food. We consume that food and it makes us ill. We have to spend a lot of money on treatment. All that money can be saved by building a toilet, using it in a proper way, dispensing water after use and cleaning it from time to time.”
For those who have not constructed a toilet and not sought government aid, Eknath and his team have this advice that “Open defecation makes the area dirty and disease-prone. We become susceptible to infections. Why should we spend hundreds of rupees on the easily preventable diseases Should we not spend that amount on building a toilet? It’s only going to bring us good health”. Adults appreciate our efforts and we intend to continue with our outreach, shares Eknath.