Around 5 am every day, the three women of the Thakur household in Bastor Naurang quietly slip out of their home to reach a relative’s house two minutes away. There, they wait patiently, taking turns to use the toilet. Two kilometres away, the residents of Kishorepur have already started their daily trek, plastic bottles in hand, to the banks of the Ganga. Some enter the sugarcane fields lining the marshy bank, others move further down to bathe.
As the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan crosses three years on October 2, the tale of these two villages near Uttar Pradesh’s Hastinapur in Meerut captures in a nutshelf the gulf between planning and implementation of the government’s ambitious Open Defecation Free initiative.
Residents of both villages are unanimous in endorsing the official initiative but they want the loopholes on the ground to be plugged first. Last month, all 4,480 villages on the banks of the Ganga — 52 districts in five states of Uttarakhand, UP, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal — were declared Open Defecation Free under the Namami Gange project.
In Bastor Naurang, 366 of the 400 households have toilets with running water but many lie unused because of fears that the pits will contaminate ground water. In Kishorepur, all 500 households have toilets with water but again, without a drainage system, residents complain that the pits fill up fast.
”The toilet was built nine months ago but we have never used it. The pit is only a couple of feet deep and it is unlined. Our hand pump is barely five feet away. If we use the toilet, our clean water source will get contaminated,” says Sakshi, 27, one of the eight members of the Thakur family in Bastor Naurang.
In a corner of the courtyard in Sakshi’s home is a small, square room with pink walls, and a sign in yellow and black that reads: “Swachh Bharat Mission, Gramin, Year 2015-16… Sakshi w/o Kushalvir, Gram Bastor Naurang.” Inside the room is a shiny, white toilet seat surrounded by a few empty cement sacks.
”We use the toilet at the house of my father-in-law’s elder brother. It has a deeper pit, which is lined with cement and tiles, so the groundwater is not contaminated. But we have to use it before his family of 12 wakes up,” says Sakshi.
In Kishorepur, Sundar Rajpal, a 25-year-old sugarcane farmer, says the village has been declared open defecation free but he still has to relieve himself on fields lining the Ganga, about a kilometre away.
“The government gave funds to built one toilet for my family, and the administration sent two labourers and 400 bricks. They used a little cement and added a wall in the corner along the boundary wall of my house and attached a door. Inside, there is one unlined pit and a white toilet seat. But I feel it’s better to come to the river than contaminate our drinking water,” says Rajpal.
The zila panchayat chief, Alok Sharma, blames the situation on the absence of a drainage facility. “We built eco toilets using government-approved technology, according to which three-feet pits, called leach pits, are dug and seats placed over them. Laying sewer lines and septic tanks is not possible here because there is no drainage facility. The villagers don’t realise that water is already polluted in this belt. They should not use shallow hand pumps even if they are not using the toilets we have built. We are working with villagers to increase awareness,” he says.
Sharma repeats the government’s claim that all households in Kishorepur are open defecation free. In Bastor Naurang, Rajpal Chauhan, husband of panchayat pradhan Rukmini Chauhan, says he is in charge at his wife’s office outside their home. ”The administration has done good work by building these toilets. But when the toilets were built, roads weren’t dug to lay a sewer line. Water is found at a depth of five feet most of the year, and two feet during monsoons,” says Chauhan.
”The administration got bricks and labourers to put up four walls around the toilet seats. But these toilets fill up fast and many people are forced to empty them every three or four days. The situation is worse when it rains. The toilets start to overflow because the Ganga is right next to us, and all the waste starts floating around,” he says.
Back at the Thakur home, Sakshi’s mother-in-law Kamla says the government’s initiative has gone a long way in addressing the concerns of women in the village. ”Who wants to shame themselves daily? Our children are healthier and instances of diseases such as malaria have decreased. But I just wish the government had built toilets where waste does not mix with drinking water. We are now saving money to rebuild the toilets,” says Kamla.