M.Elangovan of Gramalaya talks about the challenges the Tiruchi-based NGO faces in eradicating public defecation

It is an issue we’d rather not discuss in public. But open defecation is a disturbing practice in India – one that has stereotyped our country as backward in the most basic aspects of personal and public hygiene.

For the past 25 years, non-governmental organisation (NGO) Gramalaya has been trying to slowly eradicate public defecation and replace it with community sanitation and low-cost toilets in the Tiruchirapalli district. Around 1 lakh toilets have been constructed by the NGO so far.

Its work with the 186 ‘approved’ slums of Tiruchi, where it harnessed self-help group teams to administer community toilet usage, won it the National Urban Water Award in 2010.

Established in 1986, the NGO is now a key resource centre for training government officials in sustainable low-cost sanitation, and has an ongoing project to include more rural areas in the district. Its ‘toilet park’ in Kolaikudipatti village displays 30 types of toilets and also has expert advice on technical issues related to drainage and waste disposal.

MetroPlus Weekend spoke to M.Elangovan, Executive Director, Gramalaya, about the response to its programmes.

Is there a gender issue for water usage and sanitation?

Water is generally required and used by everyone. But in India, it seems only the women are expected to take care of a home’s sanitation and collection of water. Gramalaya is working to create more gender equality in this field. There is also the issue of caste relations in water usage in some parts, which is why our vision is to make everything more equal and democratic when it comes to access to water and sanitation.

How are you different from an organisation like Sulabh?

Gramalaya’s focus is on individual toilets. We support people who ask for help in constructing a toilet, by offering micro-credit loans. Sulabh toilets on the other hand, operate on community-based maintenance, on a contract basis.

Gramalaya motivates the local community, to form Sanitation, Hygiene Education (SHE) teams.

Members are usually from self-help groups. We have 180 SHE teams so far for each approved slum in Tiruchi, which are governed by the Women's Action for Village Empowerment (WAVE) body.

Once the project is over, we withdraw from the area. This ensures that we maintain transparency in our dealings. And people understand that they are responsible for maintaining the toilet. This also reduces the burden on the Corporation.

What is the cost of each toilet, and how does your focus vary in urban and rural areas?

In slum areas, toilets are normally constructed by the city Corporation. Gramalaya constructed its first 8 toilets in 2000 with the assistance of UK-based Water Aid. We spent Rs 8 lakhs then. Now if you want to build 10 integrated community toilet and bath units, you will need Rs. 20-30 lakhs.

We focus on individual toilets in rural areas, where 70% of people defecate in public.

The main reason is ignorance and resistance to change. Historically, the ‘eduppu kakkus’ (chamber pot) could be found only among the elite families in urban areas. But manual scavenging was a problem in the cities, until it was abolished by the government.

Till today, public defecation is still an accepted practice in rural India. Our villagers don’t see the link between improper disposal of faecal matter to the spread of viruses and diseases.

Their argument is that ‘we are defecating in public like the animals, freely and without a care. We have been doing it for generations, and never got any disease. So why should we change now?’

Usually when we ask people in villages to build toilets, they claim not to have the money for it. They may be in full-time employment and even have savings at home, but because they have never considered the toilet important, they may be reluctant to spend the cash.

So we set up a micro-financing arm called GUARDIAN (Gramalaya Urban and Rural Development Initiative Network) in 2012 with Water.org of United States. In this three-year project, we give Rs.10000 as a basic toilet loan, to be repaid within 18 months. This can be supplemented with around Rs. 2000 from the village community. Gramalaya gives technical support and does the building work within three days.

Around 40,000 toilets have been built by GUARDIAN. We also enlist local government institutions to help out, as we are targeting 57 panchayats covering 228 villages in Mannachanallur and Uppiliyapuram blocks.

How do you follow up on a project to see if it is sustainable?

We monitor a project through the Association for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (AWASH) committee. They ensure that the toilets are well-maintained throughout the year. The ‘Open Defecation-Free’ board in front of the village also has a certain prestige value. Kalmandhai was our first fully sanitised slum in Tiruchi, as early as 2000. We also have invented our own alternative products, such as a polypropylene toilet pan that is lighter than the ceramic models, and easier to maintain because of its sharply-angled design.

What are the issues of trust you face and how do you safeguard your funds?

The first step is spreading IEC – information, education, communication. We highlight the problems of women related to public defecation. Most of the women in rural areas don’t go to the toilet for long periods of time due to cultural restrictions. This often leads to health problems such as kidney disease or uterus infection.

Many women have faced harassment while going out late at night to relieve themselves. Also, attacks by stray dogs and snakes as well as road accidents are commonly reported. When we discuss this taboo subject in the open, we have seen attitudes change more quickly, especially among the men of the household.

We also use children to educate their parents. Public participation helps to create greater acceptance.

Many people are shocked to know the connection between defecation and ill-health, and then motivated to look for a solution.

Why did Gramalaya zero in on public sanitation?

Our founder Mr. S. Damodaran started off tree-planting drives, but then we realised that sanitation is a more challenging issue.

There are very few NGOs involved in this sector because it is about changing people’s mindset, which is not an easy task. The results of our work will be seen over the years rather than in a day or two.

What is your personal interest in Gramalaya?

I have done my Masters in Commerce and Social Work from St. Joseph’s College, Tiruchi. We used to do field work in the rural areas as part of our extra-curricular activities. The interaction with people, and the scope for social change inspired me to take up this field.

I came to Gramalaya 16 years ago after working as an accountant for eight years.

Family members may find the long working hours a little difficult to adjust to, but working in an NGO gives you a chance to educate yourself in many other fields as well.

What remains on Gramalaya’s to-do list?

Sanitation is a huge ocean, and as much as 60% of the population is still defecating in public. According to a 2011 study by the Unicef, Tamil Nadu has an average 46% of its households practising open defecation, so we still have to go far on creating awareness.

International exposure has shown us that there is more interest in public sanitation abroad than in India.

From water-management to educating the public, we need to keep everything sustainable.