She wakes up at the crack of dawn. It’s still dark when she starts trudging up the mountain with a plastic bottle in hand, warily scanning the track for animals and snakes, and, over the last few years, a new danger. “Now, we worry about tourists seeing us. That would be embarrassing,” says Raj Devi, 45. Devi is a mother of two, including a 29-year-old daughter, and their daily struggle at Barhal village in Rishikesh, on the banks of the Ganga, highlights the gaps on the ground in the government’s flagship cleanliness drive.
Last month, Union Minister for Rural Development and Drinking Water and Sanitation, Narendra Singh Tomar, declared that all 4,480 villages on the banks of the Ganga — 52 districts in five states of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal — had become Open Defecation Free under the Namami Gange project.
But as The Indian Express found out on a journey down the banks of the river, starting from Barhal near Uttarakhand’s Shivpuri, an emerging hotspot for river-rafting and tourist hotels, the reality doesn’t quite match that claim. Raj Devi’s old, three-room home is among the seven-eight households in Barhal that do not have a toilet. At least three of these families, including Devi’s, are listed as Scheduled Caste.
“We don’t have any running water, either. We don’t have money for a connection and pipeline. My daughter and I walk down to the stream that meets the Ganga, around 400 metres away, to bathe, and carry water up the hill. In the morning, I go up the mountain, sometimes in groups but mostly alone. We don’t want to be seen defecating in the open,” says Devi. On June 22, Uttarakhand was declared Open Defecation Free to become the fourth state on the list after Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and Kerala, and one step before Haryana.
According to the 2011 Census, 45 per cent of households in rural Uttarakhand did not have toilets — and 50 per cent in Tehri district, where Barhal lies. And, according to state officials, the 1,173 toilets yet to be constructed in Tehri until April were in place by June. “I had a toilet at my home in Pauri while growing up. When I got married, I had no option but to get used to going to the jungle. I dread calling my family members here. They are used to having toilets with running water. Most of the time, they come for the day and leave in the evening,” says Devi. Her daughter, Soni, has never known another life — even the government secondary school nearby did not have a toilet while she was studying there.
“The school got its first toilet about 10 years ago. Many people who can spare money have toilets here. Most got grants from the government, some used their own money. We earn only about Rs 10,000 a month. We have been trying to build a toilet for several months but no money has reached us. Who doesn’t want a toilet in their home? There are several homes in this Gram Sabha that don’t have a toilet,” says Soni, whose husband and brother are the family’s only earning members.
This despair is only one part of the story, though, in a village of 75 households. Other Barhal residents, mostly from the upper caste, claim that open defecation has stopped in the area. But remind them of these families without toilets and they quickly add a caveat. “Oh, yes. But they are harijans,” says Dhruv Bhandari, who lives less than 300 metres from Devi’s house. Pointing to the toilet that he built, around 20 metres from his house’s boundary wall, Bhandari says, “I built this toilet around six years ago. The government paid me Rs 5,100. I had to put in some of my own money. It has running water.”
There are other families from the Scheduled Caste community in the village who have managed to build toilets — but not without their share of struggle. One of them belongs to 22-year-old Sonam who settled here after getting married in 2015. “My mother was shocked and angry that her daughter will have to go to the jungle to relieve herself. Within months of my marriage, my mother and I made sure that we built a small functional toilet. We have drawn a temporary pipe from the nearby tap. We spent about Rs 16,000. At the time, we heard the government was giving Rs 5,100 to build toilets but we haven’t been got the money yet,” she says. Vikram Singh, an employee in the district education office, is not convinced by claims of the village being open defecation free.
“I built two toilets and one bathroom around two years ago. It cost me Rs 1,50,000. I am fortunate that I could afford it. What the government is offering to build toilets is too low and many families are still forced to go in the open,” says the father of three. Gram Pradhan, Hukum Singh Bhandari, reiterates the government’s claim that the village is “entirely open defecation free”.
“There are only a few people in the village who haven’t managed to build their own toilets. There are three toilets for them near the rafting camps,” says Singh, who is the pradhan of eight villages with 500 households. Since the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan kicked off in 2014, Singh says, his panchayat has seen nearly 50 toilets come up. “Around 25 were built by the people and the government helped in building the rest. No toilets have been built in Barhal for the past four-five years as there are enough toilets there.
Initially, the government gave Rs 5,100 to build toilets but now that has been raised to Rs 12,000,” he says. Vimi Joshi, block development officer, says, “We are taking to people and trying to cover all those who were left behind. The work is being done on a war footing. I was posted in the district only a month-and-a-half ago.”