Women of a Ma­ha­rash­tra ham­let give hus­bands an ul­ti­ma­tum— build toi­lets or go with­out food


Women in a Ma­ha­rash­tra vil­lage refuse to cook un­til their hus­bands build toi­lets at home

TOI­LETS ARE not an is­sue over which one sees ag­i­ta­tions ev­ery day. And when it comes to women ag­i­tat­ing against hus­bands, it may well be an un­prece­dented sit­u­a­tion. Yet, the women of Amgaon, a tiny vil­lage in Wardha district of Ma­ha­rash­tra, did just that.On June 24,they staged a chool­band, or no-cook­ing protest, forc­ing their part­ners to not just start con­struct­ing toi­lets but also giv­ing them a taste of the hard work they put in to feed families.

Within three days of ag­i­ta­tion, their part­ners buck­led. Con­struc­tion of toi­lets has started in 80 per cent of the vil­lage, which com­prises trib­als and other dis­ad­van­taged sec­tions. Ap­pre­ci­at­ing the ef­fort, the district ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fered the vil­lage sub­sidy to con­struct toi­lets. The cost of con­struct­ing work­able toi­lets is much higher than the sub­sidy, though.The men fear they may not be able to com­plete the work soon enough to pre­vent a sec­ond ag­i­ta­tion which the women threaten to stage.

Un­told suf­fer­ings

Amgaon, or a vil­lage con­nected by road in lo­cal par­lance, boasts a tar road and is hardly 100 me­tres from the Nag­pur-Wardha high­way.The road has ush­ered ur­ban­i­sa­tion in the vil­lage, but it has also taken away the vil­lage

com­mons. In the ab­sence of toi­lets, the only place they are left to squat is this very road­side. “Men and women use the same road­side for defe­ca­tion,” says Shee­labai Cha­van, one of the most ac­tive pro­tes­tors. “It is ter­ri­bly em­bar­rass­ing.”

Con­stant move­ment of ve­hi­cles wors­ens the prob­lem. Women are forced to abruptly stand up while defe­cat­ing, at times re­peat­edly. This is not just em­bar­rass­ing but also causes great phys­i­cal dis­com­fort.The prob­lem has led to do­mes­tic un­rest as well. “If a woman can­not find a suit­able spot for squat­ting, or has to stand up re­peat­edly, it is very likely that she will re­turn home late.The hus­band, who has al­ready re­turned home from work tired and hun­gry, gets ir­ri­tated wait­ing.The sit­u­a­tion in­vari­ably ends up in a quar­rel,” says 45-year-old res­i­dent Satyab­hama Pawar.

Defe­cat­ing on the road­side is also dan­ger­ous. Last year when el­derly Lee­labai Jad­hav went to re­lieve her­self in the night, she slipped and fell. She has per­ma­nently dam­aged her shoul­der. Wa­ter-borne dis­eases come last in the women’s list of woes.

Of late, chil­dren and the el­derly have started fre­quently suf­fer­ing from wa­ter­borne dis­eases like di­ar­rhoea. Open defe­ca­tion is not just the cause of th­ese dis­eases but also causes un­told hard­ships be­cause pa­tients need to re­lieve them­selves again and again. Fu­la­bai Pawar, an el­derly ma­tri­arch, says she has been suf­fer­ing from di­ar­rhoea for the past few days. “It is rain­ing now and it is such a pain to walk up to the road,” she says.

War of pri­or­i­ties

It’s not that men are in­sen­si­tive to the woes of not having toi­lets. “It is em­bar­rass­ing for us, too,” says 30-year-old Vit­thal Pawar. “Be­sides, the tar road has be­come so dirty that it is a tor­ture to walk on it.” But find­ing money to con­struct toi­lets is a big is­sue. Most res­i­dents of Amgaon are mar­ginal farm­ers and have a hand-to-mouth econ­omy, says Vit­thal. “Last year, all our crops got ru­ined due to flood and hail­storms. This year there has been a drought. The lit­tle money we have goes in ed­u­cat­ing chil­dren, tak­ing care of health and bare sur­vival. Cough­ing up 30,000 to 35,000 to build a toi­let is ab­so­lutely im­pos­si­ble,” he says.

Women dis­agree. “What is the point of

Amgaon vil­lage did not have a sin­gle toi­let till last year. To­day, about 60 toi­lets are be­ing con­structed there, though men say they do not have the money to fin­ish the task

get­ting chil­dren ad­mit­ted to schools if they are sick most of the time and spend their days at home?” asks Shee­labai. “And what about the money spent on treat­ments?” Of­ten, money is spent on weddings and other so­cial oc­ca­sions out of sheer so­cial pres­sure, while nec­es­sary ex­penses like toi­lets are ig­nored.

The de­bate, says Shee­labai, was go­ing on for the last few years, but dur­ing last year’s heavy rains there was so much suf­fer­ing that women be­gan to se­ri­ously dis­cuss the prob­lem in self-help groups. “When the dis­cus­sions reached homes, there were fights in al­most all the house­holds,” she says. Men in­sisted that toi­lets were not pos­si­ble with­out gov­ern­ment aid, but the women were not will­ing to wait. “By April this year, the sit­u­a­tion be­came so tense that there were cases of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. Some women left their hus­bands and went away to their par­ents’ homes.”

The women then ap­proached Su­dam Pawar, ac­tivist from farm­ers’ group Kisan Ad­hikar Ab­hiyan. Un­der his guid­ance, they gave a five-day ul­ti­ma­tum to the men—start con­struct­ing toi­lets or there would be no cook­ing at home.

The men of Amgaon have ag­o­nis­ing mem­o­ries of the days when their wives were sit­ting at the ag­i­ta­tion venue. “Men en­ter­ing the kitchen is a taboo here. No one has any idea how to cook. Some do not even know how to chop a brin­jal,” says Vit­thal. “Our chil­dren were also hun­gry, so the men came to­gether in groups and made des­per­ate at­tempts to cook af­ter re­turn­ing home from work,” he says.

The first day the women re­mained hun­gry, but by the night food started reach­ing the ag­i­ta­tion venue. “It was hor­rid. When the food was not raw, it was burnt,” laughs el­derly Chatura Cha­van.

Within three days the men gave up. “We had no op­tion,” says 50-year-old Sa­mad­han Pawar. “We couldn’t eat the food we cooked and our work was get­ting badly af­fected.”

No cash to com­plete work

Women say that the men did not lose a sin­gle day to start con­struc­tion work. The vil­lage that did not have even one toi­let, now has some 60 toi­lets at var­i­ous stages of con­struc­tion.The district ad­min­is­tra­tion has an­nounced a sub­sidy of ` 10,000 to con­struct a toi­let. Most peo­ple who have started con­struc­tion have been paid the first in­stall­ment of ` 4,600. The sub­sidy is a grant un­der the Nirmal Bharat Ab­hiyan (nba), says Block Devel­op­ment Of­fi­cer Sha­bana Mokashi. Fur­ther pay­ment will be made un­der the Ma­hatma Gandhi Na­tional Ru­ral Em­ploy­ment Guar­an­tee Scheme and will cover the labour cost.

“Usu­ally, the nba grant is paid only af­ter the toi­let seat is con­structed and the roof slab is laid,” says Mokashi. “But see­ing the en­thu­si­asm of the vil­lage, the gram pan­chayat de­cided to re­lease the amount early to speed up work,” she says.

Men are scep­ti­cal of get­ting the toi­lets com­pleted soon. “This is the be­gin­ning of the crop sea­son,” says Sa­mad­han Pawar. “We have to meet seed and in­put ex­penses. Gov­ern­ment aid is enough only to con­struct a toi­let seat. To com­plete a use­ful toi­let, we will have to shell out at least ` 25,000 each. We do not have so much money.”

But the women are in no mood to lis­ten now. “It is we who have to suf­fer the most,” says Chatura Bai. “We have taken beat­ings from the men to get this work started. We will not al­low our ef­fort to go waste. Un­less the toi­lets are com­pleted within a rea­son­able time, the men had bet­ter learn to cook.”

Lee­labai Jad­hav (right) fell and in­jured her shoul­der when she went out to defe­cate one rainy night. Her

daugh­ter-in-law has com­pelled her hus­band to start con­struct­ing a toi­let

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