A Stuttering Start…

By Ashutosh Wakankar, Centre of Gravity

The drill involves inviting every household, early in the morning, for an evening event followed by a reminder rally by school children at around 4PM for the same. The event includes a skit, 3 short films and a couple of speeches by local government authorities ending with a pledge by the citizens to build toilets for their homes to eliminate open defecation. All this would have been simple had it not been for the difficult infrastructure challenges in our villages. Road conditions, literacy levels, power availability etc. cannot be taken for granted and hence a mobile unit has to prepare for pitching its tent wherever the crowds feel comfortable about gathering.

So I was thrilled when on day one of our rollout everything went to a plan till such time when our show was to begin. The morning invites were done as planned and the kids did their bit to generate enthusiasm through their procession and the events team found a clean village square right in front of a temple and strung together the projection screen on the temple entrance. We tested the equipment – the film on DVD to be projected through the laptop and LCD projector, the sound system, the cordless mikes and the power back up for the equipment. To our surprise, it all worked fine and we were waiting for the sun to set so that the crowds gather and the show could begin.

However, while it kept getting darker, the crowds never came. There were dozens of children waiting for the films and a bunch of hangers on watching us all from a distance while pretending to be busy with other work, but only a handful of them can be called our audience. And most importantly, no women at all had joined us for the program.

Our little investigation revealed an entirely new set of barriers that will now have to be factored into our SOP. First up, out of their eagerness, we were taken by the local contacts to the most developed part of the village to host the event. This part not only has very high toilet ownership but is also a cluster of upper caste, well off houses for whom toilet ownership and usage was no longer an issue. But more importantly, this area, through an unspoken rule, is out-of-bounds for the less well-off caste/class of people from the village who live in an entirely different cluster on the other side of the highway (which runs through the village). Those people, for whom building toilets is a much bigger need and an even bigger challenge, did not dare to walk across to be a part of our event.
And when we decided to move our show to the other part of the village and as we were setting the stage, a decent crowd gathered which included adults and children, men and women. However, just a few minutes into the show a group of men from the village stepped onto the stage hurling abuses at the government officials for not paying up for the toilets already built. It resulted in a major altercation with allegations flying thick and fast about jobs half done and promises not kept. And as the situation started escalating, the women and children slowly started moving back to the safe confines of their homes.

Fortunately, things never reached a point of physical violence but our team decided to call it a day since it was already well past ten in the night. While we got out of the village with our bones and our equipment intact, it opened our eyes to a set of preconditions that we had not factored into our preparation. While we were aware of the anger against backlogged payments, the extent of restrictions caste clusters impose on movement within the village was severely underestimated.

As we head out today to mount another expedition against open defecation, it will be interesting to see what else rural India has in store for us.


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