For residents of Karnataka’s Bidar district, defecating in the open isn’t just born out of necessity; it’s a way of life. “They think it’s the natural way of doing things,” explains obstetrician Dr Indumati Patil. That’s exactly the kind of thinking that Patil is out to change. Since April this year, the Bidar-based doctor has been responsible for the construction of toilets in 4,000 homes in Bidar and an additional 6,000 in Gulbarga, Raichur and other districts of Northern Karnataka with the help of the Infosys Foundation.
As a Rotary Club member, Patil has been involved in the social sector since 2005. “Foreign visitors who came to India on Rotarian exchange programs used to tell us ‘We eat outside and shit inside but here, we see people eating inside and shitting outside’”, says Patil ruefully. Of course, impressing foreign visitors wasn’t what led to her initiative. “A lot of the women who came to me were riddled with mosquito-borne diseases, caused due to dirt and lack of sanitation,” she says. “My pregnant patients had no access to basic latrines. It was a pathetic state of affairs.” There were also instances where some boys from a nearby engineering college clicked obscene photographs of women defecating in the open on their phones.
In April this year, the 39 year-old partnered with ASHAs (Accredited Social Health Activists) and conducted workshops in various areas. “We distributed forms to people who were interested in getting a toilet constructed,” says Patil. “The Infosys Foundation offered an incentive of Rs 8,000 to each household that undertook the project.” They had a target of 10,000 houses but they ended up getting nearly 22,000 applications. She involved medical officers and Panchayat Development Officers in workshops aimed at spreading awareness about the benefits of indoor latrines.
After completing the construction of 10,000 toilets at the cost of Rs 16,000 per structure, Minister of Rural Development Jairam Ramesh suggested the way forward. “He proposed that I adopt a panchayat and see that every house gets a toilet,” says Patil, who was honoured by Ramesh in a formal ceremony earlier this year. For now, she’s concentrating on Dhannur, a hamlet of about 144 houses. She visits the area every morning to oversee the work and interact with the people.
“A basic latrine costs around Rs 16,000 to construct,” Patil elaborates. “Incentives, discounts and financers take care of three-fourths of the expense. The rest of the money comes from the family for whom the toilet is being built.” Patil insists that the financial contribution of the family concerned is essential for the project’s success. “Often, people fill the forms enthusiastically but then lose interest,” she explains. “At other times, once the toilet has been constructed, people use it as a storeroom.” She believes that when a person spends time and money on the project, he/she is more likely to put the finished structure to good use.
People from various panchayats have approached Patil to launch the initiative in their villages. However, a major hurdle standing in her goal of an ODF (open defecation free) state is sponsorship. Since the Infosys partnership ended, Patil has been looking at corporate and individual sponsors. “I’d like business families to get involved,” she says. “Instead of donating huge sums of money at Tirupati or hosting big weddings, they can pick a village and sponsor 50 to 100 toilets.”