A Vidarbha village innovates toilets where women chat freely
It took a scuffle with villagers for the block development officer in Mehkar tehsil of Buldhana district to understand why community toilets do not succeed in rural Vidarbha. Two years ago when the newly-posted officer, Rajendra Patil, sought to reintroduce community toilets in Deulgaon Mali village, people squarely told him no. All they wanted was a wall to cover a portion of the land women had been using for defecation.
A wall would ensure some privacy but not sanitation. “When I refused to provide funds for the wall, the villagers and I had a big fight,” remembered Patil.
“I had to leave the village in a huff.”
After tempers cooled off, people told Patil why they thought a conventional toilet would not work. Women in villages, explained Sangita Gore, a resident, go out for defecation in groups, partly for safety from wild animals and partly because it offers the busy women a chance to socialize with distant neighbours. In the bushes they find privacy, while maintaining contact with others. But a toilet closet cuts them off from other women. “We feel stifled and scared,” said Gore. “We’d rather be in the fresh air and in touch.”
Three years ago a community toilet with several closets was built for women in the village. The women stopped using the toilet within two months.
Patil saw their point. With both sides understanding each other, conversation flowed freely. The solution emerged in the form of a sanitary unit that allowed women to see and hear each other. The new toilets were built in a semicircle instead of in a row. They had no doors because women do not use them. The walls between cubicles were raised only halfway so that women could see and talk to each other. The complex was screened from public view by a semicircular wall covering the entrance. With a central tank for water supply instead of taps that stop working after a while, a durable and cost-effective model was created. Water is regularly pumped into the central tank. The excreta collects in a porous underground tank, where it decomposes naturally.
The model, named half-humorously Mahila Gappa Shauchalaya (women’s chatting toilet), was an instant success. “It is a safe and healthy experience,” said Kusum Bali. “We can talk to each other, and there is fresh air.” The panchayat provided a concrete path to the toilet, 24-hour water supply, electricity at night and a woman sanitary worker.
Two more similar toilets have been built in the village. One by the panchayat and the other by the women. A fourth is under construction. Each unit of 13-15 toilets is used daily by 300-odd women and children. The new design, said Patil, has other advantages as well. It requires half the space needed in the conventional design, and the cost (Rs 2.25-2.5 lakh) is less than two-thirds.
The village is now planning a public toilet for men. “I do not think the open chatting pattern will work for men who are not used to going out in groups, but the semicircular design is useful. All the cubicles face the central tank, so users do not have to carry buckets down a single lane,” said Kishore Gabhane, sarpanch of the village. “We will design a cross between the conventional and the ‘chatting’ toilet for men.”
The toilet has aroused lots of interest. Sadanand Koche, the chief executive officer of the district panchayat, has declared the project will be replicated all over the district. A pipe-manufacturing company in neighbouring Jalgaon district, Supreme Industries, plans to build such toilets in Gadegaon village where the company has a unit.
The success has broken the trend of community toilets falling to neglect and disuse in the region. Government agencies would blame lack of water, maintenance or collective will but never got it right. As Gabane now explains, use of toilets depends not only on facilities and maintenance, but also on people’s practices. “If facilities do not match the practices, they will not be used,” he said.
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