House of Dignity

Having chosen Gram Vikas as the partner NGO to work with for a year, 13 Revolutionary Radicals, as Shalini called us, arrived at Bhubaneshwar after a 36-hour-long train journey. It had been a while since I did such a long train journey, but it was so much fun that I wouldn’t think twice to do it again!

After a couple of days of interaction at the new corporate-like administrative headquarters of Gram Vikas, we finally set out to visit rural Orissa. The plan was to travel across a few villages over the next ten days to understand the work being done by Gram Vikas. All of us were super excited – this is what we had been waiting for, this is what we were here for!

Beautiful Orissa

Beautiful Orissa

As we travelled to Mohuda, where the head office of Gram Vikas is located, we were treated to mesmerising views of the Eastern Ghats all along – Orissa is so BEAUTIFUL!

We reached the Mohuda campus – a beautiful green campus in the middle of a village – complete with massive and friendly trees, dogs, cycles, aesthetic brick red buildings covered with creepers, clear blue skies in the day and starry nights! What a treat it was! Not to forget, we also had comfortable rooms and a mess that served great food! Who saw that coming in the middle of nowhere, eh? : )

As we set out on our field visits, we first went to a closeby village, where we finally got to see the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) project, which we had heard so much about. When Joe Madiath, founder of Gram Vikas called himself the SHIT guy, we knew this had to be something big! GV has completed WASH projects in 1200+ villages, impacting 70,000+ households.The intention of the programme is to enable the community to start living a dignified life by starting off with sanitation facilities for themselves. I have written about WASH in my earlier post, but as I gather my thoughts, I think the amount of work that is being done warrants a separate post by itself and looks like this might as well be that post! If you have already watched this video I had shared earlier, you would understand better what I am talking about.

So Orissa has the dubious distinction of being the state with the poorest coverage of water and sanitation! A very large percentage of the population in rural Orissa does not have access to proper sanitation facilities and resorts to open defecation – usually near a water source, thereby contaminating water sources and resulting in many water-borne diseases. (Imagine, the majority of deaths in such areas is due to diarrhoea. : ( This is also a huge problem for women, who have to wait until its dark to do something as simple as relieve themselves. Women also have the burden of fetching water from far off water sources before they go to fields for work. Access to protected drinking water is a huge problem as all these ponds are contaminated.

Gram Vikas’s WASH intervention provides 24×7 water supply, toilet and bath facilities to the villages, and they do it IF and ONLY IF 100% of the villagers agree. Imagine! 24×7 safe to drink water, something even major cities don’t have!

You might be surprised to hear that some people are resistant to the idea of using a toilet! Unfortunate though, they are!

You may wonder why 100% should agree then; why not just do it for whoever is ready to do it?

100% inclusion ensures that there is no single person who can contaminate the water because he doesn’t have a toilet. Even if one person defecates in a water source, the entire village’s supply gets contaminated. Another important result is that it removes the caste and gender barrier that exists in these societies. When Joe sir was telling us about the caste barriers that exist, he narrated an anecdote. Here’s a conversation between Joe Madiath (JM) and an upper caste Brahmin. (UCB)

UCB: Hey, we don’t want the lower caste guys to get a toilet, only the Brahmins should get them. We cannot be having similar amenities as those lowly people!

JM: Oh, then the lower caste guy will shit near the pond and the water that you drink will be contaminated by his shit. How about you shit near the pond and let them drink that water? Your Brahmin shit is holy and won’t really pollute anyway. So let them get the toilets and you continue without toilets!

UCB: Oops!

It was heartening to know that the whole implementation process of the water and sanitation has actually reduced caste and gender barriers to some extent by involving each and every member of the village in the decision making process.

The process of motivating and convincing the village is the tough part; they are shown 24×7 water supply as the incentive for accepting the project, apart from being educated about the importance of toilets and safe drinking water.

It is important to note here that the government’s Nirmal/Swachch Bharat Abhiyan only talks about a toilet for every household. There is no talk about water supply and also no bathroom. What good is a toilet if you have to walk 2km to the pond to fetch water in a bucket to clean up? People would most likely end up using the pond as their toilet.

Gram Vikas also strongly advocates a bathing room along with the toilet for a dignified way of living. Joe Madiath’s recommendations to the planning commission for making a bathroom mandatory along with the toilet was unfortunately dismissed and the panel called the bathroom as only ’desirable’. Sigh.

Gram Vikas believes that much of the problem is the engrained psyche that poor people only need poor solutions. Everybody deserves a dignified way of living and quality solutions.

Gram Vikas also ensures people’s ownership in the programme. A village committee is formed in the beginning for all the decision making, which includes people from all castes and equal representation of women as well. Every household contributes Rs.1,000 (sometimes more) toward the building of the toilet and bathroom. This cost sharing is very important to ensure ownership. The villagers are also trained in masonry, so they can be involved in the construction and also have an alternate means of livelihood later on.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear that many villagers felt that their toilets bathrooms looked better than their houses and soon showed interest in building better houses, availing loans with the help of Gram Vikas.

Another interesting anecdote I heard was about brides’ parents asking whether the same facilities exist in the groom’s village. If not, the groom is being told he must build a toilet and bathing room first! How about that!

The majority of tribal communities that Gram Vikas’ works with is un-electrified. To bring 24-hours of piped water supply to un-electrified villages, water from perennial springs are harnessed and diverted through pipelines, from as far as six kilometres. The water is first collected in an in-take well near the beginning of the streamm where it is purified. Principle of gravity flow is used to traverse over small hills to ultimately reach a storage tank in the village and from there, to individual homes – with no electricity being used anywhere. As in keeping with GV’s principles, the villagers take full responsibility for maintenance of the entire water supply system, including safety of the pipeline. People contribute all unskilled labour, stone and sand, while the cost of external materials are sourced from govt. schemes or outside.

It was such a joy visiting these villages, they are kept so clean and people are so warm and welcoming.

I remember, we were told during the initial orientation at Ahmedabad to politely refuse water offered in villages in our do’s and don’ts.

Turns out, in the Gram Vikas villages, we actually ask if we can fill our water bottles from their bathrooms! Haha! Who would’ve ever imagined that!

Aaaand, I managed a slightly shorter post this time! Will be blogging often to make up for the lag, since I started a month late! Hope you guys continue reading with the same enthusiasm. Until next time!

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5 thoughts on “House of Dignity

    • A new village takes 1-3 years to convince , sometimes more! it is really awe-inspiring how these people still persist and convince them! the impact once done is astounding! the people are so involved in the entire process that they feel really proud at the end of it and are more ambitious for better quality of life. it was quite heartwarming to see this

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