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Cleaning Agent

Toilet humour has acquired a degree of respect in Ratanpur,a tiny village of five tribal-dominated clusters in Madhya Pradesh’s Betul district.

Written by Milind Ghatwai | February 26, 2012 1:52:10 am

In Madhya Pradesh’s Ratanpur village,a woman’s unusual rebellion brings the issue of sanitation sharply into focus

Toilet humour has acquired a degree of respect in Ratanpur,a tiny village of five tribal-dominated clusters in Madhya Pradesh’s Betul district. But it took a gutsy,newly-wed woman to walk out of her husband’s home last year for things to come to this pass.

When Anita Narre left her in-laws’ home in May last year because it had no toilet,Zitudhana,a cluster of 175-odd houses,in the village,was shocked. Defecation in the open was a norm even among those who own big houses and tractors,so the new bride’s defiance made news in the community. But Anita was steadfast in her demand. If her husband Shivram wanted her back,he had to build a toilet for her. “I did not do that to become famous. I did what I felt strongly about,’’ she says. The 24-year-old returned eight days later after Shivram,who was then a daily wage labourer and now a temporary teacher at a government school (where he teaches environmental sciences),constructed a toilet in their house with the gram panchayat’s help.

Anita went on to script a near-revolution in sanitation in the region,doing what years of government campaigns could not achieve,when other women followed her lead and demanded toilets in their homes. More than half a billion people in rural India do not have access to latrines,even while the central government’s “sanitation for all” drive has made the construction of toilets mandatory in states like Chhattisgarh. Anita’s defiance earned her respect among the villagers,particularly the women. Without her precedent,they say they could never have put their foot down,despite the inconvenience of having to choose between the lingering darkness before dawn and the late evening hours.

The signs of change are evident in the village. Most houses in Zitudhana already have a toilet or are in the process of getting one. If the construction work has stopped,it’s only because there is a shortage of bricks. The Ratanpur gram panchayat plans to ensure that every house in the five clusters has a toilet,eventually extending this awareness to other government schemes as well. The toilets also help the women save time because they don’t have to walk long distances any more. Inevitably,they have learnt to joke about their toilet habits,how the elders feel claustrophobic in the new cubicles,used as they were to open-air latrines. Behind the good-natured humour is the admission that they have begun to embrace change. “Earlier,we unsuccessfully tried to persuade villagers but they rarely showed any interest. Now,every one wants a toilet,’’ says village sarpanch Lalita Narre.

The last time Ratanpur felt so empowered was when a newly-constructed dam Zitudhana Jalashay brought in irrigation facilities,helping the villagers grow more crops. Then the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) was introduced and migration of labour went down drastically. But those were government initiatives. Anita’s rebellion is a more personal struggle for dignity by claiming personal hygiene for herself and her family.

The eldest of seven siblings,(including five other sisters),Anita spent most of her youth in Chicholi town,15 km away from Ratanpur. Though the town itself is not very different from Nandra village,where she was born and spent many years,or her husband’s place in Ratanpur,the only change was the presence of a toilet in her father’s house. It was also her father Ammulal Kumre,a primary school teacher,who fuelled her independent spirit. He encouraged her to complete her basic education and enrolled her for graduation at the Bhoj Open University,from where she is awaiting the result of her second-year BA examination. Kumre stood by his daughter when she left her in-laws’ place and returned home two days after the wedding. “Meri bacchi kuchh galat to nahi kar rahi thi (My daughter was not doing anything wrong),” says the 47-year-old. The fear of censure did not bother him,he says,because he was aware of the government scheme to build toilets and was confident that his son-in-law would comply. “I knew Shivram is honest and hardworking,” he says.

What turned the tide in favour of Anita was the gram panchayat’s initiative to help Shivram build a toilet. “I pleaded with her to come back but she did not budge,’’ says Shivram,younger to his wife by two years. The 22-year-old then appealed for financial help to the panchayat. That was when the village learnt about Anita’s unusual demand. Ramesh Uike,whose family was one of the first to have a toilet in their house,accompanied Shivram when he tried to woo back Anita from her father’s home. He says her resistance was an eye-opener,considering that even the few graduates in the village did not feel awkward or inconvenienced by the lack of toilets at their homes.“We were more worried that Shivram would feel devastated if people came to know that the poor man’s wife had left him and he had no money to fulfill her demand,’’ says the sarpanch’s husband Manohar.

The panchayat’s initial help was mainly out of sympathy for Shivram,who lost his father a decade ago and was raised by his mother who earned a pittance as daily wage labourer. In August,however,the gram sabha decided to felicitate Anita for her bold decision that had raised awareness on an important issue. The cash prize was a mere Rs 501,but it legitimised Anita’s action. It also brought out in the open the issue of sanitation for the first time. Madan Mohan Shukhla,a resident of nearby Asadi village,says,“It’s difficult to make the Gond tribals change their mindset. I had a tough time convincing them to donate blood because they thought they would become weak. I thought they would never agree to build toilets.’’

There is now a palpable divide in the village between those who own a toilet and those who do not,a scenario unimaginable until last year. And life has changed irrevocably for Anita and Shivram. Betul district has named Anita the ambassador for their sanitation campaign,hoping that her example would generate awareness among more people. Acknowledging the change she has wrought,Sulabh International,an NGO synonymous with sanitation,has recently announced a cash prize of Rs 5 lakh for Anita. It’s a huge sum for the couple,considering Shivram,a Class XII pass-out,earns barely Rs 2,400 from his job as a temporary teacher,which he got in January. The family’s modest home has a television,but no DTH connection. Anita says they aren’t planning to get one either. Her education,and that of her husband’s,tops her list of priorities. Both know Shivram will lose his job when a permanent teacher comes along. Shivram was one of the 13 lakh candidates who appeared for a recent examination to select 65,000 teachers in government primary schools but is not confident he will clear it. The money needs to be utilised carefully. “It would be better if we both get permanent jobs than a cash award that will get exhausted one day,’’ Anita says.

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