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  • Sudhanshini Devi and her son Ganesh Kumar stand in front of their two newly constructed toilets.
    AKDN / Christopher Wilton-Steer
Sudhanshini Devi: Having access to a toilet changes lives

Improving access to sustainable sanitation and hygiene continues to be one of the most pressing development challenges for India today. In response to this challenge, the Indian Government launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or Clean India Mission, to create an open defecation free India by 2019. Since the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission in 2014, India’s sanitation coverage has doubled to 74 percent.

In 2015, in response to the Government of India’s flagship programme, the AKDN launched its Comprehensive Sanitation Initiative. The initiative is a five-year programme aimed at facilitating access to improved sanitation and hygiene for over 700,000 people in six states: Bihar, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Telangana. A key component of the initiative is generating demand for improved hygiene practices, thereby tackling age-old norms and transforming long-standing behaviour change that improves the quality of life.

In 2016, a year into the initiative, the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) began conducting interviews with beneficiaries to understand how having a toilet constructed in their homes was making a difference in their lives. Below is the transcript of an interview that was originally published on the AKF USA website:

Sudhanshini Devi, 60, lives with her two sons and their families in Vishanpur Bakri tola. Ganesh Kumar, 28, is her youngest son and has a young daughter. He and his wife are expecting their second child. On Gandhi’s Birthday, 2 October, Vishanpur Bakri tola was declared Open Defecation Free by the Government of Bihar. Ganesh Kumar and his mother were one of the last households to have constructed a toilet for their family.

Here they tell us what difference having access to a toilet has made in their lives.

AKRSP: Sudhanshini Devi ji and Ganesh Kumar ji, your family has recently constructed two toilets, why did you build them?

Ganesh Kumar (GK): We constructed these toilets because a year ago we started learning about the dangers of open defecation. It began when AKRSP field staff came to our village to find out how many households had a toilet and were using them. During this meeting, it became clear that most of us in this hamlet were relieving ourselves outside, even if some of us had already built a toilet. In follow-up meetings and during house-to-house visits AKRSP explained to us the health risks of open defecation and suggested that every household without a toilet consider exploring building a toilet. When my family learnt how unhealthy it is to defecate in the open, we started looking into constructing a toilet.

AKRSP: What were some of the biggest challenges you had to overcome to construct the toilet?

GK: Raising money to construct a toilet was difficult for us. Both my brother and I are agricultural labourers and do not have much saved up. We wanted to construct good quality toilets and were worried that this would cost a lot of money. AKRSP helped us understand that a simple toilet could be constructed at a relatively low-cost and that we could apply for a government subsidy to cover some of the cost. After learning that a simple toilet could be constructed in around Rs. 18,000 [US$ 261], my brother and I decided to construct two, so that everyone in our family could go to the toilet whenever they needed.

AKRSP: Was it difficult constructing the toilets?

GK: The actual construction didn’t take long at all, just four days with the help of a mason. We followed a design suggested by AKRSP, which is good for low-lying areas, like where we live, so the toilets are built on a slightly raised platform. The design is simple and easy to use and keep clean. We also built handwashing basins so that everyone can wash their hands after using the toilet.

AKRSP: Has having toilets made a difference to your lives?

Sudhanshini Devi (SD): It’s made such a difference to my life. I had never in my whole life had access to a toilet and always had to rely on going outside to relieve myself. When I was a young woman and later when I became pregnant going to the toilet was really difficult and I’d have to wait till it got dark or early in the morning to go because I’d be embarrassed if others saw me. I remember when I was expecting my sons I’d be in a lot of discomfort because I couldn’t go to the toilet as often as often I needed to. Now that I’m older it’s very convenient to have the toilet nearby as I can’t walk such long distances anymore and I’m glad that my daughter-in-laws and grand-daughter don’t need to wait to go to the bathroom like I did when I was young.

GK: My mother, wife and daughter all say that it’s really made a change to their lives and that they also feel safer as they don’t have to travel distances in the dark to relieve themselves. For me and my brother and his sons it’s also better having the toilet close by, we don’t waste time walking to go to the toilet.

AKRSP: Your tola was recently declared Open Defecation Free. How do you feel about this?

SD: I’m glad that this happened in our tola. I notice that it doesn’t smell as much and it’s good that everyone is using a toilet. It means we’ll be healthier and cleaner.

GK: It’s good that our tola has been able to accomplish this through our joint efforts, everyone now understands that defecating in the open is dangerous and has become more aware about their personal hygiene and the cleanliness of the village.