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Little Chenchu is not comfortable talking to strangers. But ask him about the time he fell on the road while going to the toilet in school and he immediately points towards his right knee. Did it hurt? “It was a big one,” he said in Telegu, “It was bad.” His friend had slipped on the road too, he added.

As they narrated their tales of crossing a busy lane, jumping over puddles, falling down at times—adventurous as it may have sounded—it became apparent how unsafe it was for the children of the Madanapalem Primary School to go to the toilet every day. The school, because it is in Sri City, a business integrated city in Andhra Pradesh, is in the vicinity of a lot of factories, which is why the narrow road curving around the side of the school was always busy with the movement of heavy vehicles. The toilets were across this road.

Going to the toilet: a risky affair

“Going to the toilet was full of risks earlier,” the headmaster of the school, D. Suresh said, “Hence I would stand out every day during toilet break to ensure that every child had crossed the road safely to go to the other side and return. Sometimes screeching motorcycles would brake right in front of a child.” The school has classes 1-5, with a total enrolment of 64 students. Toilet-break at 10.30 a.m. was a busy time for the teachers—they had to be extra vigilant and keep an eye on each student crossing the road. If any child were to feel the need to go in between class, the class teacher would accompany him or her to keep a check. S. Nagamani, Chenchu’s class teacher, for example, would accompany her students during their toilet break or the in-betweens. “Even then, sometimes children would slip and fall on the road, especially during the rains, when the mud road would turn slushy,” she said.

The toilets in themselves were not in a good shape, the headmaster further said. A closer look to the now disused toilets—separate for boys and girls—showed a dilapidated state, amid unruly bushes. R. Hemlatha, a student of class 5, said that she would be “scared” to go to the toilet. “We have seen snakes and other insects in the bushes near the toilets,” she said. The headmaster agreed. “I would go and check the toilets every morning, before the toilet break, for any poisonous insects or snakes,” he said.

Hemlatha’s classmate, M. Charan, who stood close by, said that the toilets were in a very poor state. “There would always be a bad smell,” he said. The septic tank was broken nearby. “The taps inside the toilets were also damaged,” he added. There was no proper provision for washing of hands after toilet usage as well. A tap on the side wall of the school building—there was no drainage system—served the purpose.

New and better

In August this year, an initiative of building new toilets for boys and girls, and a separate hand-washing area with taps and a sink, in the school by WaterAid India and Pepsico Foundation, along with their local partner, Rashtriya Seva Samithi (RASS), resolved these problems. The new structures are now within the school premises which means the students have to no longer cross the road to relieve themselves. Safety and sanitation have taken the front seat, and so has hygiene, as students can now also wash their hands and their plates after food better. Stagnant water near the tap where they used to wash their hands earlier and its riding risks of diseases is also a thing of the past. Impressed with their juniors’ new acquisition, students of the high school nearby have also started talking about their requirement for better toilets. “The female teachers of the high school sometimes use our toilets,” the primary school headmaster said.

It was 10.30 a.m. by this time. The students rallied out, the chatter growing louder. “The new toilet is so much better,” said Hemlatha, when asked about her opinion, “It’s cleaner and closer!” Vedashri, a student of class 2, who waited her turn didn’t quite understand the significance of the new structure on her safety and health but when asked to compare the old toilet with this, she was quick to say, “Oh I like the new one!” Her friends giggled and then agreed in unison.