In 2011, a bride in Madhya Pradesh’s Betul district, Anita Narre, had walked out of her husband’s home because it did not have a toilet, inspiring the recent Bollywood hit Toilet: Ek Prem Katha. Now, a different toilet story is playing out in the district. On September 12, the Amla Janpad (Block) panchayat of Betul, struggling to meet the open defecation free target, slapped steep fines across seven of its villages. Only 13 out of 68 gram panchayats in Amla Janpad are ODF-free so far.
“My father did not eat for two days after getting the notice. He was shaken,” says 33-year-old Radheshyam of village Rambakhedi. The family of 10 was slapped with Rs 75,000 fine, the largest in the seven gram panchayats under Amla Janpad. The panchayat arrived at the amounts by fining Rs 250 per day for each member of a family, including children, for 30 days.
The maximum notices were served in Rambhakhedi and Rambhakhedi Dhana villages. Under the Madhya Pradesh Gram Panchayat Rules, 1999, the gram panchayat served the notices, holding that open defecation was dangerous for health. It gave the offenders three days to pay up, adding that otherwise, the fine amount would be recovered by revenue officials.
Rambakhedi gram panchayat officials say that they did not actually carry out the threat, and that the notices were meant only to scare the villagers. However, families like Kunwarlal’s are nervous. A majority of the villagers in Rambhakhedi are daily wagers, very few own land and fewer still are employed. After the notices were served, there were heated exchanges at the panchayat office.
Kunwarlal says building a toilet will cost his family at least four times the subsidy amount of Rs 12,000 given by the government. Beneficiaries are entitled to the subsidy only when they build a toilet and provide proof by posing next to a completed structure.
Apart from the Rs 75,000 fine threat, Kunwarlal adds, “it was a big embarrassment to become known for something like this”. “Many have got notices but my name was used repeatedly by the media,” says the 56-year-old.
Since the notice came, Kunwarlal’s sons Radheshyam and Deepak have dug a huge pit in the backyard of their house. The family says it is waiting for a mason to finish the job.
However, Kunwarlal admits he didn’t build the toilet as he didn’t feel the need for it. There are enough open spaces in the village to defecate, he says, including the railway line that passes behind his house.
Kunwarlal’s elder brother Malakchand, who lives in an adjacent house, has more than one toilet at home. While he is not a qualified medical practitioner, by his own admission, he gets clients from far seeking medical advice. However, he understands Kunwarlal’s anger, Malakchand says. “Itna bada danda kyon mara (Why were they so harsh with the fine)?” he says. “What if my brother does not pay? He is also angry with the government for making sale of cattle difficult. People can sell a cattle head and raise money for a toilet, but nobody is ready to buy cattle these days,” he says.
Neighbour Punjabrao, who was told to pay Rs 45,000 by the gram panchayat for not building a toilet despite being warned to make one a month ago, says, “Let them take me anywhere they want after the deadline for paying the fine ends. I don’t have any other option.”
Wife Lalita adds that his daily earnings are less than the Rs 250 fine that the panchayat has sought, and that their daughters Sheetal and Kanchan, who dropped out of school after Class 10, have to often work as daily wagers too. “If we had Rs 45,000, we would have built a toilet long ago. I am ready to go to prison if need be,” she says.
The family also says it can construct a toilet only if gets the Rs 12,000 subsidy in advance, because no one is ready to give them building material like sand, bricks and cement on credit.
Chief Executive Officer of Amla Janpad Panchayat Praveen Kumar Iwane admits the fines were a means to achieve the October 2 ODF target. The administration wanted to convey it was “serious”, he says, adding that there was no real deadline by which recovery was to begin. “The threat has worked because about half of those who got notices have started building toilets,” Kumar says.
Rambakhedi sarpanch Ramrati Uikey adds that some villagers had “refused to fall in line” despite taking a pledge at a gram sabha meeting a few months ago to build toilets. “Earlier they were not ready to listen to us, but now they are scared. The threat is working,” she says.
At the same time, the work is crawling because unlike earlier, when panchayats got the money and built the toilets, now money is deposited directly into bank accounts of beneficiaries after toilets have been built. Many villagers say they just don’t have the resources to start work.
Rita Sevaram Thakur, whose family of four was asked to pay Rs 30,000, says there are other ways pressure is being applied. She says the local fair-price shopowner has refused to sell food-grain to her because her house does not have a toilet. Noting that her husband earns around Rs 150-200 per day as a daily wager, she says, “How will we get the material on credit to build a toilet?”
Sarpanch Uikey admits they haven’t figured out how to tackle those who don’t have money to build toilets. Or the problem of lack of water — most villagers fetch it from a tubewell a kilometre away.
But Rajkumar Gadekar, among the few in Rambhakhedi to have a toilet, says some of the reasons given by villagers are just excuses. A driver, he says his house did not have a toilet when he got married, but his younger brother could get married last year only after the family built one. He says villagers have always defecated in the open and only threats like denying them ration will make them change habits.
Vishwnath Binzade, who teaches at the government primary school, claims villagers often argue when they are told to stop open defecation.
Up-sarpanch Gajanand Sahu indicates more pressure tactics could be ahead to check that too. Once every household has built a toilet, he says, the gram panchayat will form a vaanar sena, comprising young boys, to embarrass those still defecating in the open.