Nearly every home in Murshidabad district’s Ghanshyampur village has a toilet. They have, however, come at a price.
In the village near Farakka Barrage, where the Ganga bifurcates into the Padma and the Hooghly, toilets built under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan are a little different from those elsewhere. While other administrations have either built or helped villagers build eco toilets without running water, the toilets in Murshidabad come with a tank and a tap.
This, however, has meant the beneficiary has had to pay Rs 3,200 more to the contractor. While most villagers have forked out the amount, others such as Mariyam Begum, 60, are waiting until they can arrange the money.
“I am a widow with three sons, all of whom work outside Murshidabad. They send some money each month but most of it is spent in taking care of their wives and children, who live with me. The pradhan said we cannot get a toilet unless we give him Rs 3,200 first, so we are still waiting,” she says.
The Centre declared 4,480 villages in 52 districts and five states, all along the Ganga, as open defecation-free in August. In Ghanshyampur, which has an 80% Muslim population, the last set of houses is around 500 m from the Ganga. The residents have built their houses at a safe distance from the river to protect themselves from annual flooding.
In the several villages The Indian Express visited between Rishikesh (Uttarakhand) and Murshidabad, residents of most were unhappy with the quality of toilets the government was building for them. Many said they want toilets with running water and septic tanks.
In Ghanshyampur, the pradhan got toilets built with running water. He also made the extra payment mandatory, however.
“I heard that the government will build a simple toilet for me for free. It will not have running water but at least I will not have to go out early in the morning each day. I can’t arrange Rs 3,200,” says Mozilima Begum, 65.
This is not the first time that residents here have got toilets. After several demands, the district administration had started a free-toilet scheme almost a decade ago. It failed, however, as many people got only the toilet seats of concrete, nothing else. One such seat now lies outside 20-year-old Sumina Begum’s house. She and her family recently got a new toilet under the Swachh Bharat Mission.
In neighbouring Dhuliyan nagar panchayat area, several families have had toilets for decades. Those who don’t, such as 40-year old Baby Khatun, are collecting money and waiting to get one made.
“As soon as I can collect Rs 3,200, I will get the toilet made. Everyone looks down upon you if you go in the open here,” she says.
This is one small village where toilets have been a long-standing demand, especially among the women. The village elders and clerics have long been stessing that women going out to defecate is dishonourable.
“Our women stay in homes and don’t even go out to work. We have been asking for toilets for a long time and finally we got them. It is a big step for the honour of women,” says Monib Sheikh, 67, a staff member of the local madrasa.
For Sumina and her family of 14, one toilet is simply not enough. But ask her if she likes using the toilet rather than going out in the open, and she smiles shyly and says, “Bhalo”. Her father-in-law, Izul Sheikh, however, points out how the walls of the toilet have neither been plastered nor painted and how the roof leaks. He still goes near the Ganga to defecate each morning, along with two of his grandsons, because he feels the toilet is incomplete.
Many women, however, are happy.
Shaan Begum, 75, has walked with a limp ever since she suffered a paralytic attack two years ago. Her son, Jabber Sheikh, was forced to close off a small area outside their house with four sticks and a tarpaulin sheet to serve as a makeshift toilet.
“I couldn’t walk and was in pain. Walking 10 metres, let alone 500 metres, was impossible. We got this toilet a year ago and paid Rs 3,200, and it is much better than the temporary toilet my son had built. It is running water and does not smell so much. I think I have forgotten how I would go outside earlier,” she says.
Her next-door neighbour, Mozilima, however, has no money to afford a toilet.
According to Murshidabad district magistrate P Ulganathan, who joined the post in June, the administration gave the villagers a choice to pay Rs 3,200 extra to get a toilet with a tank and running water.
“It would give them a better version of the toilet that is being built elsewhere. The move shouldn’t have been forced on anyone and others should have had the option to get a simple toilet like in other places. Maybe there was some miscommunication between the previous administrator and the village pradhan,” he says.
The pradhan, Gulab Sheikh, was not in the village the day The Indian Express visited and could not be contacted over phone either as he was in Nepal on “personal business”, members of his family said.
Ulganathan, meanwhile, is looking for ways to make the entire Murshidabad district open defecation-free. He says he succeeded previously in a similar exercise in Cooch Behar by involving the community.
“In Cooch Behar, people built the toilets themselves and are also using them. We conducted various awareness exercises in the area,” he says. “I plan to do something similar in Murshidabad. Now that the toilets are ready, a triggering exercise to ensure usage should start. It has to be a people’s movement to succeed. We’ll hold public meetings and jan darbars in the whole district which will involve all stakeholders including teachers, school staff, medical college students and doctors.”