The two villages are separated by 80 km and a state border. Gahmar in Uttar Pradesh carries the tag of being among India’s largest villages with 25,994 people, according to Census 2011. Salempur in Bihar is a dusty spot on the map with 543 residents. Gahmar is dotted with concrete houses, while Salempur is a cramped collection of mud homes.
And yet, what really separates these two villages along the Ganga is this: most of the 4,365 households in Gahmar have toilets; of the 175 households in Salempur, only 115 have toilets, of which around 90 are half-built, according to residents.
Last month, the government declared that all 4,480 villages in 52 districts on the banks of the Ganga — in Uttarakhand, UP, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal — had become Open Defecation Free under the Namami Gange project.
“In the last year-and-a-half alone, we have got 1,802 toilets constructed here. The demand for another 600 has already been raised of which 400 are requests for more toilets by families who have already got one each,” says Durga Chaurasiya, speaking on behalf of his wife and Gahmar pradhan, Meera Chaurasiya. ALSO READ | Down the Ganga: A mother, her daughters get a toilet — and dignity | Click here
Gahmar has been in the news before for the number of military personnel it has produced — around 15,000, claim residents. The village also stands out for a sex ratio of 945 compared to a state rate of 912 and a literacy rate of 76.57 per cent to UP’s 67.68 per cent. It has even built five ornate Ganga ghats, which are maintained by the residents themselves.
Now, it’s the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, which completes three years on October 2, that they want to be known for.
“The people here are aware and themselves approached me for help to build more toilets when they heard about the government scheme,” says Chaurasiya.
But the arrival of toilets in households of the poor, many of them Dalits, has led to a different problem.
“The government got toilets built for us but we don’t have space. In my house, barely 1.5m by 1.5m, the toilet is right next to the room in which my family sleeps and there is a bad odour. But at least, we now have a toilet. Earlier, the elders in the village would frown upon us for going out to defecate in the morning. We don’t have to deal with their stares and I don’t have to wake up at 3 am anymore,” says Kuli Devi, 38. READ | Down the Ganga: Swachh Bharat along a river, some gaps in its wake
“Space is an issue for the poor but we have tried to do the best with whatever little space they could spare,” says Chaurasiya.
About three hours away by road, Rita Devi, her husband Ram Sevak and their three children are at the banks of the Ganga in Salempur, getting ready for a bath. They got a toilet built a few months ago but are still forced to defecate in the fields near their house. “Our toilet has no door or a roof. But then, many people in my neigbourhood have no space to get a toilet constructed so they have been left out,” says Rita.
Phulahri Devi has six daughters and five sons — and a small, new toilet outside her house, encroaching on the narrow street outside. But again, the toilet has no door or a roof. “The land does not belong to me and I had to work hard to convince others in the area to agree to let me build this. Now, I want the construction to get completed,” she says. READ | Down the Ganga: Two villages, one tale; morning queue and a long trek
Cramped for space, some of Phulahri’s neighbours have come up with a novel idea — a common complex of three toilets in one corner.
One of them, Reeta Devi, says, “I had no space in my house and three of us neighbours got together to build the complex. All families are free to use them, provided they clean it themselves.”
Manish Yadav, pradhan of Ijri panchayat of which Salempur is a part, admits that there are gaps on the ground in the government’s initiative.
“The whole area has been declared open defecation free. But what can I do if people don’t have land to build toilets? In most houses, only the toilet seats and doors remain to be installed. Work will be completed as soon as I get money from the authorities,” says Yadav.