Open air defecation, squatting on either side of the road of the village, is an age old problem in most of rural India.  This practice causes diarrhea epidemics with avoidable mortality and morbidity, especially during the monsoon season when it is easy for the feces-contaminated water to enter the food chain. This narrative describes the experiential learning on the part of Prof Jajoo and his team as they went back againand again to the drawing board to build a new toilet model! This was however just an initial step towards solving the age-old problem of open-air defecation in rural communities around Sewagram. The resounding success of the efforts under the leadership of Prof Jajoo and his team and the abject failure of the similar government sponsored efforts in this direction shows that experiential learning and educational sharing, the twin philosophies on which the foundation of holistic rural health was laid, made the very difference in the outcomes.

‘One house-One toilet’

Open air defecation, squatting on either side of the road of the village, with the women using the entry road to the village and the men using the exit road from the village, is an age old problem in most of rural India.  This age old compromise solution adopted by the villagers, causes diarrhea epidemics with avoidable mortality and morbidity, especially during the monsoon season. In the monsoons the village streets and alleys are water-logged and it is easy for the feces-contaminated water to enter the food chain.

Professor Jajoo noticed this during visits to the rural communities, and was well aware of those who got hospitalized for water-borne illness in Kasturba Hospital. Due to the impact of these practices on health, he came up with the idea of one house /one toilet in the villages. This idea was transformative in its conception knowing what the villagers had been practicing for ages.

Armed with this idea, Prof. Jajoo and his team rolled up his sleeves and went about trying to implement this concept. However, the execution of this philosophy turned out to be an experience in itself.

After persuading the villagers, one toilet was constructed for one poor worthy family of each caste in the chosen village of Nagapur. However, three months later, on visiting the village for feedback, the team was unpleasantly surprised to find that the toilets were being used less as a bathroom but more commonly as a storage place for kitchen fuel, and also as a shelter for their goats.

The root of the problem

Completely taken aback by the bizarre behavior of the villagers, the team immediately went about discussing this with the villagers.

sanitationThe moment of truth finally dawned when an elderly lady appeared from nowhere and fired a volley of questions to Prof. Jajoo and his team.

Elderly lady- ‘You had visited this adopted village many times, is it not true doctor?’
Professor Jajoo- ‘Yes.’
Elderly lady- ‘If you have had a look at the people around the village well, have you ever spotted men fetching water?’
Prof Jajoo- ‘No.’
Elderly lady-‘How much water would it require to keep your latrine clean?’
Prof Jajoo- ‘One bucketful per usage.’
Elderly lady replied in- ‘My daughter-in-law has to fetch water for drinking, cooking, cleaning utensils, washing clothes, bathing, cleaning courtyard etc. With six members in the family, if she has to fetch six more buckets of water, she will surely break her back. So, why don’t you come and fetch water for us? With the water level being low and water being scarce in the wells in summer, will your toilet not stink?’
The elderly lady had hit the nail right on the head!

But Professor Jajoo did not call it quits, yet. He further asked the lady- ‘Why this irresistible yearning for filthy road side defecation and saluting us on arrival into the village?’
Elderly lady- “In monsoons, do you expect us to go out at night and squat in knee deep mud in the farm fields? Moreover, with no lights in the village, and with the fear of snake bites, where do you think would be the best place to squat?”
Professor Jajoo:  “Of course, the approach road to the village, where you have street lights and stony road.”

Experiential learning

This conversation was the real eye-opener to the ground realities. This forced Professor Jajoo and his team to go right back to the drawing board and come up with a meaningful solution. A realization suddenly dawned on the team that - however transformative and idea may be in its conception, unless it meets the realities and practicalities of day-to-day life the idea was of no use!

Prof. Jajoo and his team went to work with the Centre of Science for Villages, a technical organization in nearby Wardha town. They specified to the technical experts there and asked ‘We needed a new latrine (toilet) model, which needed to fulfill the following criteria’

  • It should require the minimum amount of water- it should be equal to the amount they usually carry for roadside defecation.It should not allow any offensive odour to permeate the air.
  • It should not require any scavenging at all.

A breakthrough finally came through after 12 months!!

The model toilet

The goal of making a toilet model which would fit these specifications was born- just ready for a test run in the crucible of practical rural life. It had no water seal, such that only 1 litre of water would be needed for cleaning, similar to the amount the villagers carried with them for open air defecation. The steep slope with slippery ceramic seat would carry filth by gravity to a twin soak pit behind the constructed latrine (toilet). The flap would fall by gravity and disconnect the soak pit opening.

The soak pit would promote dry decomposition in contrast to wet decomposition in water seal latrines connected to septic tanks which also generated foul smelling gases. Thus, the filthy odour would be a thing of the past and the second soak pit would be connected as the first filled up and in a month’s time. The dried up feaces could then be useful as manure and would be lifted to the fields.

The toilet was to be in the residential premises, would have cement plastered walls, a shining tin door, asbestos roof for privacy, and with an ornamental exit pipe which had a cap, from the soak pit.