From 16th to 18th December, members belonging to diverse communities from all over India got together at Parmarth Bhawan in Rishikesh for a 3-day workshop organised by Global Interfaith Wash Alliance (GIWA) and Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council to discuss issues around sanitation and present them to relevant decision makers.
The workshop was attended by individuals belonging to migrants and refugee groups, slum dwellers, farmers, senior citizens, women’s groups, representatives of Ojus Medical Institute, representatives from the LGBTQ community and several other minority communities who spoke up about access to clean water and toilets built under the Swachh Bharat Mission.
Despite being declared open defecation free by the Prime Minister in 2019, 44% of the population in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar defecate in the open.
During the workshop, Arun Kumar, a representative from the Dalit community said, “According to me, the funds dedicated for the building of toilets should be directly sent to the villages instead of the mukhiyas and jal sahiyas, this will help curb corruption.”
He further added that “Dalits have faced a lot of discrimination. People believe that they have no identity in society. I hope that through this workshop by GIWA and WSSCC, we can help address this discrimination and end it.”
According to another participant – Martha Hansda who represented persons with disability,
“Every new policy that is made completely ignores the needs of people with disability. If you just take the example of the toilets being built by the government, they neither have provisions to accommodate wheelchairs, nor proper commodes for seating. We discussed all of this at the workshop yesterday, hopefully it will help change things.”
Hansda also said that even if we disregard normal situations, it is especially hard for women with disability during menstruation. While building toilets, the government not only needs to keep in mind the needs of persons with disability, but also the needs of menstruating persons with disability.
Tushar Ghorke, a representative of the urban poor and homeless community spoke about the wide challenges faced by them, “We live in a night shelter, there is a toilet there but it is filthy – people throw garbage, spit on it. There is no facility to clean it. If the state can pay better attention to sanitation and provide us with the necessary infrastructure, then discrimination against us would also be addressed.
Another member of the community Smita Kamble had to say, “We’ve learnt a lot of new things at Parmarth Niketan. The night shelter we live in is in a pathetic condition, no efforts are made to keep it clean and hygienic. When we talk about menstruation, women in the grassroots still don’t have enough money to even buy sanitary napkins, on top of that, government toilets are shut at night.”
Sultana, who is a sex worker talked about how her work leads to a lot of discrimination. They can’t even talk about menstruation because their rights and needs are completely disregarded. “I have gone from house to house to spread awareness among people, but we still don’t have a toilet in our house. After endless visits and requests to the Nagar Palika, we were given ₹4000 to build a toilet. Even within our community, most women don’t even have a house, forget a toilet.” Sultana also said, “Those given the responsibility of building toilets by the Nagar Nigam don’t even survey the area properly. I’ve been a sex worker for 20 years, if I buy a sewing machine and start making clothers, will I get any customers?
The government needs to help rehabilitate us to improve our quality of life. So many of us have faced violence, and when we try to report it to the police, FIRs aren’t even filed. They tell us, ‘you’re sex workers, what violence complaint can you have?’”
Another major challenge faced by sex workers is discrimination by safai karamcharis who refuse to collect waste from their areas because it contains condoms.
Neetu, a transwoman pointed out that they can’t even talk about access to toilets when their identity itself is ignored. They don’t have basic documentation. “When we don’t have our own homes, how can we talk about toilets? The government is not helping us in any way.”
Adding to the conversation, Kalpana, an Adivasi activist added, “The tanks made have no lids, the toilers have no doors. In rural areas, how do you expect people to talk about toilets when they have never seen one? One of the biggest challenges we face in villages is that residents don’t use the toilets built by the government.”
During these three days, women from across the country were given more information on menstrual health and hygiene by the Menstrual Lab. Apart from taboos around menstruation, information on alternate products like biodegradable pads, menstrual cups and tampons was also provided.
Another key highlight of the workshop was the critical assessment of the toilets built by the government, and the discrimination faced by minority communities.
Anil Sharma from the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, in his address to the participants said, “The role of the central ministry is limited to providing technical and financial aid. The responsibility of implementing the policies lies with the state governments. As far as corruption is concerned, it is crucial that citizens register their complaints against it.”
Addressing the grievances of the minority communities, WSSCC’s technical expert Enrico Muratore Aprosio stated, “The challenges faced by communities from all over India should definitely be addressed, especially since they are a part of the decision-making process through this workshop. We have faith that the government will come up with the necessary solutions.”
Trupti Ashtankar, WASH Support Officer at WSSCC added, “This workshop has been an enriching experience for not only the participants who have joined us from different parts of India, but also for the facilitators and everyone else who has been a part of the discussions. It’s main objective was to address SDG – 6 (clean water and sanitation) from the perspective of these 14 communities, which we have successfully been able to do.”
Assistant Registrar of the National Human Rights Commission Indrajeet Kumar also acknowledged the discrimination faced by minority communities and observed, “There are obvious flaws in the toilets being built under the Swachh Bharat Mission, which need to be solved immediately. The open discussion we had today is the first step towards change.”