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The ‘School of Cleanliness’ at Sabarmati Ashram

Safai Vidyalay, Sabarmati Ashram. Photo: Raksha Kumar

Ahmedabad: It was Mahatma Gandhi’s 145th birthday on Thursday. The man who is said to have led India’s struggle against the colonial British was also a fierce campaigner for cleanliness and efficient sanitation.

To commemorate this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, launched the $2 billion Clean India Mission. He swept a neighbourhood in New Delhi and called upon the people of India to keep their public and private spaces clean.

The goal of the drive is to give the quintessential government office – with its white paint peeling off marked with stains of red at the bottom; fungus-infested walls and roof; stinking toilets and recklessly scattered litter on the floors – a much needed facelift.

The roads, lined with dry leaves, animal dung and assorted litter also need attention. Solid waste management in most cities is a magnified problem. According to the latest United Nations report on Sanitation, more than 50% of Indians defecate in the open. There is a crying need for toilets in every house. However, the problem doesn’t seem to be money as much as that of the mindset, as Mr Gandhi had identified in the early 1900s. During one of his first Satyagraha revolutions termed the Champaran Campaign between 1916 and 1918, Gandhiji is said to have asked his wife Kasturba to have a dialogue with the women of Bhitiharva village on cleanliness.

During the course of her detailed, unrestrained discussions she spoke to the women about the merits of bathing daily, of changing their clothes regularly and of washing their private parts. While the rest of the women kept mum, one woman is said to have bravely stood up and told Kasturba that most women in that village had only one piece of cloth – the one they wore. Therefore, there was no question of changing their clothes daily.

Their village was short of water most months of the year, so, they would economise its use. And that there was hardly a private place in the village for the women to bathe in. Kasturba had started at her, stunned. In a neighbouring village, when Kasturba gave the same discourse to a bunch of women, they told her that they had survived long periods of time without any major health issue and questioned the need to put Kasturba’s teachings into action. “Why is sanitation important, they asked?” To this, Gandhiji is supposed to have said that those who want to remain in the darkness of filth are of two types.

Those who cannot be clean due to their circumstances and those who do not want to be clean due to their ignorance. Even today, large parts of India is trying to fight the latter. To combat such indifference, in one corner of the Sabarmati Ashram, from where Mr Gandhi launched several of his movements against the British, lies Safai Vidyalaya or the School of Cleanliness. The main subject taught in the school is affordable methods of sanitation. The science of economical toilets are explained by large charts hanging on the walls of the the ‘School of Cleanliness’.

These pictorial charts explain how every house can install affordable toilets for as low as Rs 6000 or $100. For instance, to a rural household, they teach how to build toilets from clay and make sanitation pipes using mud. The mud absorbs all the nutrients it needs and facilitates the easy flow of water to the fields, where the pipes eventually ends.

But, despite such methods if more than half of 1.3 billion people do not have access to sanitation, it could only be termed a matter of indifference. Balwant Singh, 56, a farmer in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh exemplifies that apathy. He was washing his new motorbike that cost him Rs 40,000 or $670 when I approached him.

Safai Vidyalay, Sabarmati Ashram. Photo: Raksha Kumar

The local government had painted a public interest message on the walls of his house which read, “Don’t urinate in the fields and get reprimanded by the farmers. Build a toilet in your home, and get a reward of 1500 rupees ($ 25) from the government.” Mr Singh later told me that the advertisement had been on his wall for three years, but he hadn’t built a toilet. “Building a toilet costs a lot more than Rs 1500,” he said. “Besides, what is the need for it in a village,”he said. When asked if the women in the house feel the need for it, he said “they have learnt how to survive”.

Therefore, the issue of sanitation in India is closely linked to social ills such as misogyny and the caste structure. . Night soil or human excreta, was removed primarily by the “untouchables”, the lower most in the caste hierarchy, with their hands or tin plates. Sixty-six years since independence, manual scavenging still prevails in India.

In 2013, the UN pulled up India for not doing enough to contain the inhuman practice and issued a statement. Several Indian states have since then banned manual scavenging. “The reason why several people do not want to make sanitation a way of life,” says one of the co-ordinators at the Safai Vidyalaya, “is because they do not want to disrupt the caste structures.” If the “untouchable” doesn’t clean toilets, he might rise up the caste hierarchy and disrupt the foundations of the society, he said. “Human refuse is so powerful that it can light lamps,” goes an age-old Gujarati saying.

Today, the Safai Vidyalaya is putting it to practice. The biogas produced out of defecation is used for cooking and lighting in the building. The Safai Vidyalaya has a toilet garden built in its campus, where different varieties of toilets are displayed in the open. A walk through the toilet garden familiarises most people with affordable methods of building their toilets in their homes . A young girl visiting the Sagai Vidyalaya looks around the toilet garden and asks her father if her excreta could also be used as fodder. When her father nods a yes, she exclaims “plants get nutrition from our refuse? Nature is fascinating!”

Published in: The NewsMinute
Published on: October 4, 2014

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