Maharashtra drought drags ‘Open Defecation Free’ villages back to fields

As villagers can’t afford to flush litres of water down the toilet, Narendra Modi government’s Swachha Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) is badly hit in drought-affected areas of Maharashtra.

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A man from a Parner village heads to the fields to relieve himself despite having a lavatory at home due to water shortage. (Photo by Sandeep Daundkar)

ATIKH RASHID

Ekurke was a success story that inspired many. In 2013, this village in Osmbanabad district’s Kalamb tehsil built 350 toilets in a short span of one-and-a-half months to end the shame of having to defecate in the open. The concerted efforts by the villagers led to the transformation of their village once “infamously dirty” into one where each household has its own toilet.

Three years later, with Osmanabad reeling under one of the worst droughts in the region’s history, almost the entire village is back to doing the morning ritual out in the fields notwithstanding the fact that each family has a toilet in the backyard. Reason: There’s no water to “waste” to flush the toilets.

The sight is common in hundreds of villages in the rural Maharashtra, including those which have officially been declared Open Defecation Free (ODF). Men, women, children and elderly are forced to visit the fields not only in villages of Marathwada and Vidarbha, but even in comparatively better western Maharashtra. The officials monitoring the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) concede that unavoidable circumstances of drought have temporarily hit the campaign.

Rajebhau Bhise, a resident of Ekurke who was at the forefront of the campaign to build toilets in the village in 2013 under the Nirmal Gram Yojana espoused by the United Progressive Alliance government, says, “What choice do we have? We are dependent for water supply on two private borewells and one well in the village which is presently providing us just enough water to sustain. At the moment, we provide 200 litres of water to every family every day, which is much higher than what is being given in nearby villages. But can it be used to flush the toilets? If so, the entire quota will be exhausted in flushing toilets. Barring elderly, every one is going to the fields in the morning.”

Osmanabad district has 44 Gram Pranchayats which have been declared ODF by the committee comprising senior officials of Union and State government agencies. While villagers and officials concerned unofficially say that most of these villages have taken to open defecation again due to water scarcity, there’s no method or mechanism to monitor the ground scenario.

“The government is not interested in knowing if the villagers are actually using the toilets. All they want to know is whether toilets have been built or not. If we show them that every household has its own toilet, the village is declared ODF. I don’t think there’s any village in the Osmanabad district that can afford 100 per cent toilet use in such a bad drought,” said a class II revenue department official from Kalamb tehsil.

In Parner tehsil of Ahmednagar district, barely 80 kms from Pune, villagers wonder how they can afford to use water for flushing toilets when they are assigned 20 litres of water per person per day.

“I have seven members in my family. Let’s consider that every member needs 5 litres of water for toilet use. I would be able to sustain a pair of buffalos on 35 litres of water rather than letting it go down the drain,” said Tatyasaheb Shinde, a resident of the village in Parner tehsil.

Another resident says, “A population of 1,630 gets 30,600 litres of tanker supply every day. Those who can afford to buy private tanker water, at Rs 250 for 1000 litres of water, can use the toilets. At the moment, 80 per cent men are going out to the fields while women use recycled water to flush.”

Since the Swachh Bharat Mission was launched on October 2, 2014, the state has built 13.35 lakh toilets with 6,756 villages earning the ODF tag. The officials coordinating the campaign rue that water scarcity has also hit the toilet building exercise. The effect is most visible in Marathwada region which is the worst hit among the five administrative regions in the state.

Suryakant Hazare, Deputy Divisional Commissioner, Aurangabad Division, who is responsible for monitoring SBM in eight districts of Marathwada, says, “I won’t be able to tell you how many of them are using the toilets and how many of them aren’t, but it’s certainly true that the construction of new toilets has slowed down due to lack of water. If a village is facing a severe shortage and even struggling to meet the drinking water needs, we can’t press them to build toilet blocks. We will have to wait until it rains.”

Of the 10,639 Gram Panchayats in the Marathwada region, 644 have been declared ODF by the authorities. In 2015-16, the region got 2.35 lakh new toilets against a target of 2.49 lakh set for the year. The campaign is not likely to start before June, officials say.

Government officials working at the village level say the present situation may have far-reaching effects on the village sanitation and campaign against open defecation.

“Convincing villagers to get rid of the habit of open defecation is not an easy job. Many months of efforts in awareness campaigns, flying squads which click the picture of violators, door-to-door visits, getting government subsidies to build toilets for economically weaker families and many other things go into the campaign. The drought relief attempts have ignored this aspect completely. It’s not clear how the government has decided ‘20 litres/person per day norm’. If a person decides to use toilet, he may spend half of his due quota on flushing alone,” said a Deputy Chief Executive Officer working with Aurangabad Zilla Parishad.

(This story was published in The Indian Express on May 22 2016.)

 

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