The Sach Behind Swachh


The Sach Behind Swachh

Illustration: Saachi Mehta/Arré

Just a few years back if someone had asked Nandini Rana about the existence of functioning toilets in Chandan Chowki, she would have reacted with amazement. Not because there had never been toilets before in Lakhimpur Kheri, the largest district of Uttar Pradesh, but because even after being constructed several times in the past, they had hardly been used.

Nandini Rana was merely pointing out what the development sector had already known. The biggest problem in India has never been the building of toilets – it has always been promoting their use. Toilet use has never been an embedded cultural practice in India’s rural areas and the people who need them the most – the women – have never had the power to demand them. Several communities in the interior parts of the country live a fairly insulated life. People like the Tharus have never gone out of their district for employment and live in a world of their own. And that world has never included toilets.

Every morning the young Nandini would join scores of other tribal women to defecate in the open. They’ve been doing it for years, but each morning there is dread as they approach the forest area. Apart from the danger of running into a wild animal, there is the issue regarding lack of privacy from passing men. The women would get out of the house when it was still dark, to avoid the embarrassment of being spotted in the daylight – and yet there were times when they had to get up abruptly and flee when they heard someone passing by.

It was a wholly private anguish, one that they believed would never go away. Women in the Tharu community were not empowered to mobilise their community to change this mind-set. They could hardly even discuss the issue with their husbands, who were completely indifferent to these daily affronts. This was an intensely patriarchal community with a long history of treating its women like secondary citizens. Tharu women worked the fields all day, while male members of the community drank themselves into oblivion.


The problem would not be solved just by building concrete structures if the women of the village were not given social sanction to use them.

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In October 2015, all of that changed. “The Rising Tharu” scheme, a trust endorsed by the then district magistrate, Kinjal Singh, joined forces with Narendra Modi’s pet project, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. It was piloted with an intention to create awareness among tribal girls and boys about mainstream developments. At first, it seemed like just another government project, created for the purpose of keeping officials busy, but this time, something was different.

Kinjal, a young woman in her thirties understood the gender dynamics of the community. She understood that the problem would not be solved by just building concrete structures if the women of the village were not given social sanction to use them. In the plains of Lakhimpur Kheri, she was the first person to link social progress with the progress of a girl child through education and sanitation. She also identified that hygiene had to be linked with empowerment to ever have a shot at success.

Kinjal encouraged Nandini and the others to openly discuss the problems arising out of lack of sanitation facilities and give it the importance it deserved. She helped Nandini and the women of the Tharu tribe find their voice, and in turn become the voice of their community. The result was that ten of the 40 villages in Lakhimpur Kheri not only got their own toilets, but families who hadn’t yet got them were now treated as outcastes.

Today, the girls in the region are the most vocal advocates of open defecation-free villages. And Nandini is just glad that she can go about her morning ablutions in peace.