Not just a toilet, it’s a space that has returned my dignity
When she first came to Garhi in Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao district, Bhori Qureshi’s heart sank. “My husband had got a job in a tannery, so we moved here from Bareilly. But there was no toilet in the building we had rented a room in,” she said when we met her this April, more than ten years since that day. Thereon started a schedule that often pushed her to the brink of giving up. “Can you imagine being scared of getting the urge to relieve yourself?” she asked, sitting on a ledge near her house as her daughter looked on, “We had to go to the fields to relieve ourselves; the farmers, if they saw us, would chase us away with sticks in their hands. At times I would eat little just so I don’t feel the need to go.”
This was not the life Bhori, now in her forties, was used to earlier. In her ancestral house in Bareilly, 260 km from Unnao, there was an attached toilet and a separate bathing space which offered her the privacy she needed. In Garhi, a tarpaulin sheet pulled across four sticks served as a bathing space. The owner of the building did build four toilets, the community added, but the septic tank is so small that it cannot meet their collective need. “We then have to pay INR 500 every month to get the tank cleaned—this in addition to the rent of INR 1500 for the room,” said Aasma Hashmi, a community member. Not everyone could afford this regular additional cost and would therefore use the fields instead.
“Our days would begin at the break of dawn; I would wake up the three kids just because we had to go the bushes or to the fields, almost a kilometre away,” Bhori said, “During monsoons, the conditions worsened. There would be snakes and scorpions, and a lot of times I would slip and fall in a ditch. I started carrying two pails of water because I needed to clean myself after such a fall.”
For her husband, Yaamin Qureshi, the daily routine of going to the fields also meant running the risk of getting late for work. “I would get reprimanded by the contractor for showing up late to work. Since I am a casual worker, there were times I missed work altogether and with that, that day’s wage,” he said. Yaamin earns a daily wage of INR 350.
There was also the question of safety. The Qureshis’ 16-year-old daughter, Saadiya, was always accompanied by her mother to the fields. Since they would prefer the early dawn or late night, Yaamin would also go with them with a torch in hand.
Things have however changed now. Bhori and her family—and the 24 other families living in the building—now have access to a community-managed toilet (CMT) with four units each for women and men and a hand-washing facility with multiple taps. Built with the support of WaterAid and HSBC more than a year back, the aim of providing such a facility for the community was to improve the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) conditions of tannery workers and their families in Unnao. The owner of the building also contributed raw materials for constructing the CMT.
“It’s been just two months since I have come here so I have always got access to this toilet,” said Zeenat, Bhori’s next-door neighbour, “From what I have heard, diseases like stomach aches, diarrhoea, fever and cold were common here earlier; there was filth on the peripheries. I have three small children so it’s a relief that I get to be in a better surrounding.” For those like Bhori, the CMT also means much more.
“The toilet has given us ease of access, convenience of use as per our needs, freedom from diseases, and above all, dignity,” she said. The family does not have to wake up early just to relieve themselves and Yaamin does not report late for work anymore. Such has been the relief that Bhori doesn’t mind the monthly maintenance charge of INR 100 that each family pays for cleaning the toilets. “I will cut costs and pay INR 50 extra if need be. We really needed this,” she smiled.