As I get down from the auto that I hired for the day to take me from my hotel in Wardha to Mahatma Gandhi's ashram where he spent the last days of his life, I wasn't quite prepared for what lay ahead of me and the feelings that would hit me from then on. I had always been in awe of the man who freed India from the British Raj on the principle of non-violence, and in a dream I had when I was twenty, I had met this man in a railway station! I had run across hundreds of people, pushing forth across strange unrelenting shoulders but I had reached this man, somehow! He looked at me, understanding that I had a question for him. And I had one. "What was your dream for India, Bappu?" I wanted an answer. Before the man could answer me it was time for my class and mother woke me up with a cup of tea. Years later here I am walking through the old wooden gate of the ashram that creaks when I push it open, walking over the ground that was once treaded by the most powerful man who ever lived in India. Today I need an answer to the question I have been carrying in my heart for years. I know in here I will find the answer.
Cottages in the Ashram
The ashram is a generous area spotted with small cottages sprawled across it. The cottages are made of wooden structure and mud walls. The roof is made of hay. The trees that adorn the grounds, I am told, are mostly planted by Bappu. Each tree has a concrete platform shaped like an encirclement. Bappu used to talk to people seated under the shade of the tree. Many principles, lessons and perhaps dreams were woven here and then passed onto people. Till today there is a peace that you sense when you sit under these trees, like the one I feel now.
Bappu's cottage in the ashram at Wardha, Maharashtra
Bappu's model of a toilet for the people
The cottage where he used to live holds a board in front of it that reads, "Bappu Kutti". There are two rooms and several small windows through which light streams in the otherwise dark residence. The walls are plastered with fine mud by what is known as lipai. There is no furniture in the entire house. Instead there are several straw woven mats on the floor to sit on. On the left hand side of the house is the room which belonged to Bappu with a door that opens outwards to a long adjoining corridor. The bed is a modest mattress with a white cotton bedspread laid on a straw mat on the mud floor. To the right side of the house is the toilet. This was Bappu's model of a toilet for the people to adopt.
In a relatively large room, the toilet has the Indian styled pot on one raised corner and a bathing space on the other corner. A window behind the pot is key for good ventilation. The floor is made of stone slab. A wooden shelf holds big copper and brass containers which were probably used to hold water. There are two doors to the toilet from different parts of the house. The septic tank is a simple dome shaped concrete cylinder buried partially below the ground outside the house. An iron pipe connecting the pot runs out of the toilet parallel to the wall to open upwards. This pipe carried the bad fumes from the toilet. The toilet was constructed in such a manner as to allow waste to flow out to fields around the house.
Bappu cleaned his toilet himself and was once heard saying, "I learnt 35 years ago that a lavatory must be as clean as a drawing-room. I learnt this in the West. I believe that many rules about cleanliness in lavatories are observed more scrupulously in the West than in the East." Bappu was known for his attention to personal health and hygiene and led a rigorous daily routine where bowel movements formed a vital part. He also believed in the "responsible" disposal of human excrement to avoid disease. "Our Indian toilets bring our civilisation into discredit. They violate the rules of hygiene," Gandhi wrote in 1925 and recommended that all the "night-soil" should be removed to fields.
This old cottage was made of the most primitive raw material but had an inbuilt toilet in an era where open defecation was not just the norm but no other option was known or thought to be adopted by people. Today most people in India live without toilets. 638 million Indians live without toilets, leading to problems of health, economics, human rights and environment. More than 1,000 children die from preventable diarrhoea every day. Women suffer from reproductive tract infections due to poor hygiene. Human rights abuses are a common occurrence as women are often molested or raped as they are forced to use isolated locations for open defecation. The faeces lying in the open contaminates drinking water sources, causing diseases and outbreaks. The effects of open defecation, lack of proper sanitation, water and hygiene are unfolding with greater sensitisation on the subject.
The last words uttered by Bappu were ''Hey Ram'
The Bappu Kutti in the ashram reminds me of my question and the answer that lies in here. This was Bappu's dream for India. An India free from open defecation; an India heading for water, sanitation and hygiene. Built in the year 1925 this toilet of Bappu's was cleaned personally by him. This way he uplifted the position of the harijans who used to clean toilets. Bappu was successful to a great extent in abolishing untouchability in the country. Now, years after his death and ages after his dream was woven here, the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan or Total Sanitation Campaign (a Government of India campaign to ensure complete sanitation coverage in rural areas, thus eradicating open defecation) seeks to complete that dream of Bappu's that remained incomplete.
End open defecation.
By Urmila Chanam, Fellow, India Water Portal, Arghyam
For full coverage by India Water Portal of the Nirmal Bharat Yatra, click here.