The country needs toilets. That’s the hard truth. Also, here are a few indigestible numbers. According to the World Health organisation, about 597 million of us defecate in the open. That’s almost half of India’s population and exactly 50 per cent of the world’s people without access to a loo. In rural India, 65 per cent of the population are forced to defecate in the open — a practice directly linked to extreme cases of diarrhoea, cholera and dysentery.
The fight for sanitation even has brides walking out of their “loo-less” husbands’ homes. Because yes, open defecation is humiliating and leaves women prone to sexual attacks.
No bahanas or shikayats
In the hamlets of Rae Bareli is American student Marta Vanduzer-Snow, who moved to India three years ago “to help out people in need and to make a difference”. “A series of opportunities and coincidences first brought me to India. When I arrived in New Delhi, I worked with a few people for my books, did some research and decided to stay... simple,” says Marta.,” says Marta.
Marta’s mission though kept her here. “I work with the most fantastic people. I go about on a motorcycle and despite all those reports of violence against women in UP, I have never had an incident in which I felt threatened. I sleep here, I work here... no problems at all. In the village where I work, a baby girl was born and the night sky was filled with song to celebrate her.”
The PhD scholar’s work has primarily revolved around construction of toilets and eco-friendly, permeable roads. “The evapotranspiration tech we use in our toilets was brought over after a consulting with a friend working with this model with the Brazilian government. It’s made up of recyclable material and is easy to install and use, she adds.”
And to make the toilets seem even more appealing, Marta has taken the help of a graphic designer to pimp up the loos. “My work hopes to strengthen and coordinate education, health care and infrastructure. With education as an example, we can see the connections between these projects. There is no light in the village from 5 to 8 pm in the winters and the children use solar lights to study.
There is one girl in the village who suffered a brain infection due to intestinal worms — toilets help prevent this. She missed many days of school due to this. There are so many studies documenting the relationship between cognitive function and nutrition — the organic farming hopes to address this. Diarrhoea and other illnesses from drinking water impair cognitive function,” she adds.
But it’s not just the toilets. Marta and her team have been involved in planting organic seeds and fruit trees throughout the village. For better education, she was involved in the setting up of libraries organising morning readings, creating arts and sports programs and wrote two textbooks (Organic Farming, English).
As far as infrastructure goes, she helped build French drains, demonstrated rainwater harvesting techniques and is currently testing “filtration systems for potable water”.
“I think it is important to include some of the people working with me on this. I volunteer with the Rajiv Gandhi Mahila Vikas Pariyojana in Rae Bareli and they have supported me in many ways. Pawan Singh and I are a team of two working on the ground — he is the Programme Coordinator. Then there have been many collaborations — graphic designer Ayushya George painted a few toilets, Kishor Bisht of the Sivananda Yoga centre taught few days to the children, ‘Mera doctor’, a telehealth service, donated a year free to both villages and the Industrial Toxicology Research Centre is working on a drinking water solution.
As for how I have been able to help with all this... let’s just say strong work ethics and principle of no bahanas or shikayats. “Also, we’re keeping our work here small. These are pilot projects which, if found impactful, will become major projects later. And where will I go next? There are villages in India which have homes made out of the soil they stand on. These people need help from everyone — from every innovation made by us. That’s what I’m doing. I’m helping make available technologies that are currently in use to those who most need them. I do this out of no feelings of charity or some cliché such as ‘white woman here to help’... I do this because it needs to be done.”...