I squinted to confirm what I had just glimpsed that spring afternoon in Tigai village in Kanpur Dehat district of Uttar Pradesh. I was there to meet the Rang De borrowers in the area, to try and understand what difference small and affordable credit has made in their lives. But for some reason, the Izzat Ghar (House of Honour) painted in red caught my eye.
It was a toilet, a four-by-four standalone room that stood separated from the rest of the house nearby.
But then, when did the toilet become the Izzat Ghar or House of Honour?
Apparently, the term was popularised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had seen a toilet named Izzat Ghar near Varanasi and hoped this would encourage more households in the state to construct a toilet in the house.
Just how much has this association of “honour” with toilet construction worked for the UP Government?
According to the official numbers on the Swachh Bharat Bharat Mission website, Uttar Pradesh is one of the 5 states with the lowest Individual Household Toilets (IHHL) in rural areas.
Only 67.27% of households in rural UP have toilets, even after the national average for rural sanitation coverage has steadily climbed to 74.22%. There are states like Uttarakhand and Haryana that have performed fairly well, where the massive construction of IHHLs has led to the rural areas being declared Open Defecation Free (ODF).
However, the concept of ODF is controversial when it comes to the Indian context. Generally speaking, ODF is measured using the stats for toilets constructed at the household level but with no numbers or scope for measurement for the usage of these toilets.
As you walk along the villages in UP, you often come across the sights of toilets with half-rusting padlocks, big and small, hanging on the toilet doors.
This is not to say Swachh Bharat Mission has not worked. There have been genuine efforts in states which have seemingly performed well under the program.
There are, however, controversial practices, such as shaming villagers who go out to relieve themselves in the open early in the morning by conducting Prabhat Pheris (morning rounds: a term coined during the Indian struggle for independence, when activists would clean streets and simultaneously raise slogans demanding freedom in the early hours of morning).
Then there are the much lauded efforts by the Block District Officers (BDOs), District Magistrates and other government officials conducting Ratri Chaupals, a community event organized late at night for hearing the complaints of people along with awareness generation on various government schemes, including the Swachh Bharat Mission.
Meeting a group of women in Kripalpur village, about 15 kms from Akbarpur in Kanpur Dehat, I asked them if they had any toilet nearby I could use. After a few minutes of shy giggling, one lady said that they didn’t feel the need for the toilet, as there were a lot of fields around. Yet another said “Our bodies have gotten used to the time when it needs to go, it isn’t really as much of a problem as it appears”
I simply nodded at the women. But what about other members of the family? What about the children or old people, who might find it tough to go to the fields every time they want to use the toilet?
“There is ample amount of space in the village itself” a lady reiterated.
I found myself at a loss for words but persisted, putting across points about sanitation, about how relieving themselves far from their houses did not necessarily mean it was the cleanest method. In my own head, I sounded increasingly preachy, so I stopped.
To understand the whole situation better, I continued the conversation in nearby Gaijumar village. Phoolmati, the lady I spoke to, said that the government was offering Rs 12,000, which was not enough for getting a toilet constructed. Further, the amount came in installments and was dependent on the photographs of the toilet, at different stages of construction, being sent to the village Panchayat.
The dependency on the Sarkar, the government, for financing something as important as a toilet takes us to the basic premise: Is the current approach by the government in implementing the Swachh Bharat Mission sustainable?
The reasons given by the villagers for not constructing a toilet led me to another question: Would the villagers build their toilets if they got affordable credit from a third source, so that they have funds to start the construction?
Mamta Devi, from the same village, said that they would have to ultimately have to repay any loan they take and what is the point of taking a loan if it is to build a toilet?
The recent Bollywood movie “Toilet : Ek Prem Katha”, starring Akshay Kumar, starts with his wife demanding a toilet be built inside the house so that she doesn’t have to go to the fields early in the morning with other women of the village, called the “Lota Party” (Utensil Group), to relieve herself.
But far from Bollywood, in regular Indian houses, are women demanding the same for themselves? Was it the women of rural UP who floated the term “Izzat Ghar”, signifying to society that a toilet would protect their honour, or was it just a term coined by the babus in our bureaucracy?
True, knowing the answer to that question does not solve things on the ground. Ultimately, I think what we need is for policies to be pushed in a way that it changes the behaviour of the people, in their understanding of sanitation.
The Swachh Bharat Mission has done a laudable job bringing up the issue of sanitation in everyday conversation. The next step would be for the people themselves to ask for sanitation as a basic right: roti, kapda and makaan (toilet ke saath). (Food, cloth and shelter (with a toilet attached))
Ahinsa is a member of the Impact team at Rang De. She visited our community of borrowers associated with the Chetana Mahila Samiti in rural Uttar Pradesh in March 2018.