I recently got a chance to visit Shramik Bharti, an organization majorly working in urban and rural areas of Kanpur, on integrated development including micro-finance, livelihood, energy, agriculture as well as sanitation & hygiene. Co-incidentally, the day I was there, a team was going for an event to a local slum where they had invited political leaders -an MLA and the Municipal councilor of that region, to directly take hygiene related questions of residents and come up with practical solutions. The focus was to be on Public toilets and open defecation.
The meeting was to begin at 5 PM, and we only had a bunch of kids in the audience. New-age Hindi-Punjabi Rap songs were playing on the loudspeaker, and children would dance when no one was watching. After a while, a group of women came and started occupying the vacant chairs. They were about 20 of them while the kids had disappeared, men were hiding, a retired municipal councilor of another region had come in support and with his arrival, music had changed to “Aisa des hai mera…”
The problem solvers a.k.a the administrative authorities were on their way, expecting to reach in next 10 minutes, since an hour. Instead of wasting more time waiting, the team thought it best to begin with the session. They started with a brief on what it was going to be about, how more efforts should be made towards cleanliness of their neighborhood and small steps that can be taken to dispose waste in a better way.
The mic was then handed to the audience, encouraging them to openly talk about everyday sanitation problems they’re facing and areas where they need help. As it my first time attending a meeting in a slum, I was curious to know about their lifestyles and everyday challenges. A lot of them said a number of things but the following five stayed with me:
- None of them have toilets built in their homes. They all either use the public toilet, one each for men and women living in this slum, or they defecate out in the open. The condition of public toilets is highly questionable, and they say that the one for men gets cleaned more often than women’s, but the opinion of men was missing in this equation.
- Each one of them needs to pay INR 5 every time they use a lavatory. For children, it’s INR 3. For a family of five that earns 850 rupees a day, considering they have 3 adults and 2 kids and each one of them uses the service three times a day, they spend almost 8% of their daily income only on peeing and shitting.
- There have been times when the structure was so weak that the roof once fell on a woman’s head who was inside, minding her own business. It happened 7–8 years ago. She’s visibly fine now but is still going through the treatment, and does not know for how long it will continue.
- There’s nothing constructed separately for disabled people, which is why they use what they have, and end up slipping or falling down and getting hurt. While political promises are being made to build ramps for disabled people so that they can go and vote, I’m sure politicians know that this is something they need to do every day, not once in 5 years.
- There have been cases of women and girls getting kidnapped, raped and even murdered by boys and men who take the females away while they are defecating in the open. Their only fault? The public toilet was slightly far for them which is why they chose to go near their house. A 6-year-old was being abducted when her brother managed to chase the guys and get her back. A group of men grabbed a woman from behind as she was relieving herself, and when she protested by shouting, abusing and untangling herself from their grip, she was murdered with a big rock.
Neither the list of problems ended nor the officials (or the designated social leaders?) showed up. The women decided to go to the Municipal office with an application next day, accompanied by a lady from Shramik Bharti who works in the area.
Who thought getting to pee and poop indoors could be a huge privilege? I didn’t!