Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet project, Swachh Bharat that envisages an open defecation-free India by the year 2019 has witnessed many local administrations take drastic measures to get people to build and use a toilet. From naming and shaming to coaxing people to use toilets and incentivising toilet use, the country has seen it all. But the idea of Assam’s Jorhat district administration to urge people to donate a toilet to those who cannot afford it certainly stands apart as a novel, altruistic concept. This concept has so far helped 400-odd families get a toilet in their homes in the last one year alone.
In 2017, the district water and sanitation committee of Jorhat started mobilising individuals and organisations to donate money to construct toilets for those who couldn't afford to build one themselves. The initiative, named Daan Toilet, is the brainchild of Virendra Mittal, a 2007-batch IAS officer who was the deputy commissioner (DC) of Jorhat until he was transferred to Kamrup (metro) as its new DC in the last week of February.
How the idea came about
The Swachh Bharat Mission aims to make the entire country free from open defecation by October 2, 2019, the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. To achieve this, states had conducted a baseline survey in 2012-13 to assess the status of sanitation facilities. It's on the basis of this survey that households were identified to receive government help for the construction of toilets.
Speaking about how the idea of Daan Toilet occurred to him, Mittal says that many families in Jorhat were left out of that survey. Moreover, many new houses came up in the area after the survey which made them not eligible for the government help because they didn’t figure in the survey. “Open defecation can be eradicated only when every household has a toilet, which is why I came up with the idea of encouraging donations to make sure that no needy family misses out on having a toilet for want of money,” he says.
The donation drive started with the DC himself donating a toilet that cost Rs 12,000. The DC leading from the front paid off and inspired others to follow suit. His team set a target of getting at least 1000 toilets built by the end of 2018. As of March 2018, poor families in the district have got about 400 toilets through donation with another 130 toilets sanctioned under the scheme.
Such has been the success of the initiative that the state government has asked all the districts to replicate it. The state government is also framing guidelines regarding this in consultation with the Jorhat DC’s office.
Mobilising donors as first step
Mittal says those who can afford to spend thousands of rupees on apparels and accessories definitely have the resources to donate money for a toilet since building a toilet costs only Rs 12,000.
The district administration identifies potential donors and approaches them with the request to donate a toilet. Once an organisation or an individual agrees to make the donation, the administration gives them the option of either taking the responsibility of constructing the toilet or sanctioning the amount to any local NGO to build it. To encourage donors, appreciation letters are given to them. Their names also get inked on the beneficiary's toilet door. “Such has been the impact of the mission that people who have donated a toilet once want to donate again. They now realise that they are donating for a genuine cause and not for a government function,” Mittal says.
In many parts of the country, villagers prefer to defecate in the open as they consider it more satisfying. Many balk at the idea of having something as filthy as a toilet near or inside their houses. Many case studies have demonstrated that merely building toilets in villages has had little to no impact on curbing open defecation. The toilets often end up as storerooms.
Here too, Jorhat administration came up with a novel awareness campaign of comparing the shauchalaya (toilet) to a devalaya (temple), contending that just like temples help bring about the purity of the soul, toilets help bring about the purity of the body. By drawing parallels between the two, the administration fostered an acceptance of toilets among Jorhat's rural populace.
Dipankar Adhikary who works as a marketing manager for one of the leading car manufacturers in India says that when he first heard about the initiative, he was apprehensive about it. Later, when he visited the site of construction of toilets, he realised that the quality of construction was on a par with national standards and that through this scheme, many people were being benefited. He, along with his brother, donated a sum of Rs 15,000 towards the drive. With the help of another colleague, they later donated Rs 25,000 for building two toilets in Jorhat's Mariani area. “I was glad to see two toilets being constructed by the money we had donated. What gave me immense satisfaction was the smile on the faces of the families that we had helped live a better and hygienic life,” he says.
Much relief to villagers
One of the beneficiaries of this initiative, Mukunda Mohan Deka, says that until they got a toilet built in their house, they used to go to a field or the bamboo forest behind their house to relieve themselves. “It was extremely difficult, especially for the women in the house. Now we don’t have to (go out in the open),” he says.
While the going has been good so far, Mittal says some more time is needed to make Jorhat fully free from open defecation. “The rainy season is around the corner and it could hamper the construction work and slow the progress,” he says.
The people of Jorhat believes Mittal’s transfer will affect the progress made by the initiative. “We will always be indebted to him for the efforts he has taken to help us, poor people. I just hope that this noble cause does not get affected once he leaves Jorhat to take over as the DC of Kamrup,” says Minati Barman, one of the beneficiaries of the programme.
But Mittal is hopeful that the next Jorhat DC will continue with the initiative. “The system and the know-how are already in place. I hope Jorhat would achieve its target of 1000 toilets soon,” he signs off.
(Pranjal Sarma is a Guwahati-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)