Until six months ago, Rajwati and her daughter Anjali used to be the last of the 27 families to set up their puja stall on the Ganga ghat in UP’s Dalmau panchayat. In March, they got a toilet at home — and their lives changed. “All these years, we had to wake up early and rush to the field. Setting up a stall in time was impossible. Now, we are the first to reach the ghat,” says Rajwati, a 48-year-old widow and mother of five girls.
The transformation goes far beyond being able to open the store on time, says Rajwati, it’s about basic self-respect. “Aisa lagta hai ki ab hamari izzat hai. Pehle ki tarah logon ke beech maidan mein nahi jaana padta. Aisa lagta tha jaise mela laga ho. Ab lagta hai apni betiyon ko maan mila hai (Now it feels like we have some dignity. Earlier, we had to go to a field along with many other people. It felt like we were part of a gathering for a fair. Now, it feels like our daughters have finally got dignity),” she says.
Last month, all 4,480 villages in 52 districts spanning five states on the banks of the Ganga — Uttarakhand, UP, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal — were declared Open Defecation Free under the Namami Gange project.
Of the 200 households along the ghats of the Ganga at Dalmau nagar panchayat in Rae Bareli, there are still about 50 without toilets. But residents say the change that has come about in the lives of people like Rajwati has convinced them to push for a future free of open defecation. “My husband, who was a priest at the ghat, died eight years ago. Since then, I have managed to put my five daughters through school and get three of them married. But if you ask me, the biggest achievement is having built a toilet at my home… and it is connected to a septic tank as well,” says Rajwati.
Getting that toilet built was no easy task, she says. “It cost Rs 40,000 but the government gave us only Rs 8,000 as reimbursement, which couldn’t even cover the labour costs. But I have no regrets. I would pay the entire amount again, if I had to. Who would want to go through the daily humiliation?” says Rajwati. For her 16-year-old daughter Anjali, the toilet has come as a boon, in more ways than one. “I never thought managing my menstrual cycles could be so easy,” she says.
However, Ram Charan Mishra, a priest at the ghat, says there is still some way to go before Rajwati’s story finds echoes in all households across Dalmau. “A lot of work remains to be done. People who have managed to save money have built toilets but there are many whose application for grants has not been approved yet and are waiting for the government to take more proactive steps. I submitted an application for a toilet around a month ago, and I am still waiting,” says Mishra. “But yes, the people here are ready for change now,” he says.
Over 90 km away, in Allahabad’s Shringverpur village, nearly every home has an “Individual Household Latrine” built by the government. Residents say they got eco-pit toilets over the last year. They now want bathrooms in their homes so that they can stop trekking every day to the Ganga, about a kilometre away, to bathe. “When we didn’t have toilets, we would go towards the barren land or wooded area to relieve ourselves. We are very happy with the new toilets and we never send our children out anymore. But with just one toilet for every home, some of us are still forced to go in the open. Also, these small pits fill up so fast,” says Prabha Devi, 29, whose husband works in a sari-making unit in Gujarat’s Surat.
Kamla, a mother of six, rushes across on hearing that “some people have come to the village asking about toilets”. “The government built the walls and put in place the doors, but there is no pit or seat inside. In my mohalla, we are the only ones without a toilet. When can we get one?” she asks.
Shringverpur residents say that most of them have stopped open defecation, but complain about the lack of piped water at home. “We have to fill water from community taps and carry it home and flush the drain. It feels like a waste. What the village needs now is piped water so that the toilets can be used properly,” says Rajendra Mishra, a daily-wage labourer.
According to Allahabad Circle Development Officer, Samuel Paul, the administration carried out a “triggering” exercise before the toilets were constructed. “We train people to tell others in their village why toilets are necessary. In this case, the government is the supplier and it is creating a demand among the people. As of now, the triggering and construction phases are over in the 122 villages along the Ganga. The next phase is the follow-up where an assessment will be carried out on the usage of the newly constructed toilets,” says Paul.
The district administration says 47,000 toilets have been constructed since 2016. “We have seen more acceptance from the younger generation, especially girls and young women — almost 95 per cent. Children have also taken to using toilets. The attitude of the older generation might need more time to change but this is not something we can enforce. The villagers themselves have to become pressure groups so that habits can change,” says Paul.