The awful tale of no toilets

I am a social researcher and a development practitioner currently handling a project funded by World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program in six Indian cities. This is a household survey on water and sanitation issues and requires me to be on the field often times with my field team, interviewing and talking to households.

Because of this interactions with citizens during the data collection process, our team becomes privy to people’s stories about what these services or its lack means for some lives. I had said a few days back that one of the best things about the SLBConnect survey is the numerous stories it invites you to even if for a short while; and the invaluable insights these stories provide. These stories have stayed with me and continue to guide our understanding when we make sense of data-sets and corresponding graphs.

IMG_20150224_144415~2

Ongoing survey in a Varanasi slum

A young girl from Rae Bareli’s squatter colony told me that during festivities, her mother, a domestic help stays out the entire day due to increased work load at the households where she is employed. During these times, the girl and her sisters have to control their bladders and the need to defecate for the entire day since they cannot go out unassisted. In dire situations they check whether the older women from their neighborhoods can assist them.

Weak infrastructure regardless, Indian cities are seeing fast growth. And with this comes ubiquitous construction– every direction in which you look there is some form of construction. With this, the open space available for people to defecate has been shrinking. “We can only go before sunrise or after midnight when everyone is sleeping. The rest of the day we have to control,” she continued.

Some houses build pit toilets so the women can have a place to defecate safely. I met the parents of four girls during a survey and they me how both were suffering from arthritis but would still walk to the fields to defecate because the pit toilet built in her home was small and they would rather their girls were safe. “No one will harm us; we have neither money nor youth. But our girls can’t go outside that far and in the open. Their safety gets threatened,” was the reason they gave me.

I was visiting a village in Purulia sometime back. There were two community toilets built as part of a government program. The people told me how it had become a curse because in the absence of a water source nearby it had become a breeding ground for germs and infections. Their grouse “If only the government and contractors listened to us, we would have told them where to build the toilets”.

Not knowing the way in which data might be representing the truths tangled in people’s realities affects our understanding and our subsequent decisions. People’s participation (or *citizen engagement*) will take us a long way in bringing out perspectives from the ground in improving services. I am increasingly coming to believe that participation is not enough. It also has to be complemented by persuasion to change people’s behavior.

I could participate and respond in ways which suit my self-interest (consciously or subconsciously)/awareness about options or even service expectations, but this might not necessarily help always. For instance, in some towns, houses do not want to connect with the main sewerage line because they believe they will be charged for services, something they are unwilling to pay for. But without revenues the government cannot function either. It becomes the classic ‘chicken or egg- which one came first’ problem. And in these aspects, the persuasion factor should certainly play more of a role.

Am I being overtly idealistic? I do not know. What I do for sure know is that the jargon we lose ourselves in sometimes arises from real problems faced by people. It is an open question about where participation should end and persuasion begin and one that certainly requires debate. But I am beginning to believe that it is a necessary debate and step.

– Sharmila Ray

————————————————————————————————————–

This is an edited version of my post which previously appeared on Terra Urban. To read the original post, please click here

Advertisements