Madurai

The woman behind building 5,000 toilets

Convincing talk: K. Selvi interacting with a woman at a village in Madurai.

Convincing talk: K. Selvi interacting with a woman at a village in Madurai.  

She also forms an all-woman army of ‘whistleblowers’ to prevent open defecation

Till two years back, open defecation was the norm for a section of residents of Narasingam, a village located off Madurai-Melur highway on the outskirts of Madurai. “For generations, we used the open spaces and did not realise the importance of using toilets. Only after K. Selvi explained the hazards of the practice that we started building a toilet at home,” says S. Chinnaponnu, a daily wage worker.

By educating people about the unhygienic practice of open defecation, K. Selvi, 36, has been instrumental in guiding people to build over 5,000 toilets in Madurai district. Her work recently came to limelight when she won the Swachh Puraskar award from the State for her service.

Ms. Selvi recalls a bitter experience when the toilet in her house was under repair and she was forced to defecate in the open. “I felt extremely unsafe and embarrassed. If this was the case for a single day, I thought of the hundreds of women who put their dignity and safety at risk every day by defecating in the open,’ she says.

This acted as a stimulus and for the last five years, she has been travelling to villages across the district, using different strategies, including public meetings, at villages and schools to ensure that the message is delivered. She also forms an all-woman army of half-a-dozen ‘whistleblowers’ who would keep vigil in their area against open defecation. “We used to start as early as 4 a.m. and if we find anybody defecating in the open, we chase them out by loudly blowing the whistle,” recalls P. Pechiammal, 59, of Narasingam.

Ms. Selvi motivates people to build toilets by using the ₹12,000 subsidy given under Swachh Bharat Mission. “It takes around six months to convince residents to build toilets at home through regular campaigning and meetings,” she says.

The challenge

When people find excuses for not constructing a toilet, Ms. Selvi tactfully convinces them to build one. “Though they do build toilets in the end, the challenge lies in creating a behavioural change to make the people use them,” says Ms. Selvi. “That is why we encourage people to build their toilets on their own and not give it to any contractor,” she says.

There is still a long way to go to for Madurai to be truly open defecation-free, she says. “But all the motivators will work together to achieve it,” she says.

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Printable version | Jun 5, 2020 7:07:33 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Madurai/the-woman-behind-building-5000-toilets/article29773652.ece

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