A few years back, I dropped my daughter to school every day. In this regard, I had to pass a small by lane which is surrounded by slum on one side and a big open ground on the other. The ground was used by the slum dwellers for open defecation. As soon as we would make that turn and are about to approach the ground my daughter would close her nose and everyday she would pity me that I can’t do the same because I am driving an Activa. And very often, I would tell her,” it’s ok. I can’t close my nose but I can hold my breath!”
The ground was lined by a compound wall, and there was a namesake iron gate at it’s entry point. In the morning, people walking in and out of the ground with buckets, paint cans, or anything which can hold water was a usual sight. Children squatting near the wall and their moms standing with their back to them was also common. My daughter would see the children with a wrenched nose. Sometimes if she made eye contact with a child,who is in the process, she would say,” us bacche ne mujhe dekha”( that child saw me). I don’t know how she felt about it or why she felt the need to tell me that.
One day she finally opened up. This is the conversation I had with her.
Diaa: mummy, that child saw me. Doesn’t he feel ashamed?
Me: maybe he does,
Diaa: I think he doesn’t go to school.
Me: what makes you think that?
Diaa: if he went to school, he would never do potty in the open.
Me: maybe he doesn’t have a bathroom in his house….
Diaa: what? How can that be? All houses have bathrooms.
Me: no dear, those who live in these houses, they don’t have a bathroom.
After this statement, she went quiet. I think it was too harsh a reality for her little innocent brain to accept. She was shocked when it dawned on her how difficult life would be without a bathroom!! And leaving her with this thought, I dropped her to school.
From that day onwards, she looked at the kids sympathetically rather than with disgust.
Later during the year, when it was time for the swachch survekshan and the smart city survey, we started seeing some unusual activity around the ground. One day, we saw people painting the walls of the ground with colourful messages on cleanliness and hygiene. The entire stretch of road was cleaned and sprayed with disinfectants.
A few days later, makeshift toilets were installed near the walls and some men and women would be standing there, probably to encourage the people to use the toilets. The iron gate of the ground was closed and locked.
After another week or 10 days later, the toilets were shifted to block the entry to the ground and the men and women monitoring the situation also increased. Still sometimes, we would see people walking towards the ground or scaling the walls. This continued for quite some days, I don’t know how many. Diaa asked me once what these big boxes are. I told her they are bathrooms and she was happy that these people finally have bathrooms.
Some days when the officials were not present, the children would come back to their favourite wall. Again Diaa asked me,” now they have bathrooms. Why are they sitting in the open now?”
Me: habits beta habits, bad habits are hard to kill. It will take them sometime to change the habit.
Then, my daughter’s school closed for summer break and we didn’t traverse that road till school opened again. Also, she was enrolled in the school bus and the bus took a different route. My visits to her school were also reduced only for ptms or any special events.
It was only later, after about 3 months, when I went to her school for a parent teacher interaction. I saw that instead of the makeshift toilets, there was a proper brick and concrete structure. The tiles looked new. There was a swach survekshan poster and few other messages on hygiene.
I don’t know whether the people learnt to use those toilets or not…I don’t know whether they understood the importance of clean and hygienic conditions to answer your nature’s call…..I don’t know whether they accepted that doing potty in private is much better than embarrassing yourself in public glare…..
I do know that the govt and the ward officer of that slum in particular did a good job and I am happy that he didn’t give up on these people and kept on trying to improve their living standards. It gives me hope that finally, somewhere, we have made a start to arrive at that stage where we can call ourself a civilised country and open defecation, which has become synonymous with India, will be a thing of the past.