In rural Haryana’s Kurukshetra district — home to a legendary battlefield of the same name from the Hindu scripture, the Mahabharata — Harjinder Kaur can barely hide her glee because she has won a 21st century war.
A clue to the pride exhibited by Harjinder, a member of the gram panchayat (village council), comes from the graffiti on the walls of her village, Kishangarh.
“Ghar ghar mein shauchalaya banaya,mahilaon ka samman badhaya (We have given respect to women by constructing toilets in every household).” Another one declares: “Beti byahungi wahan, niji shauchalaya ki suvidha jahan (I will marry my daughter only in a household having a private toilet).”
“It is a huge convenience for the womenfolk, and it keeps my village clean," said Harjinder as she showed us indoor toilets. “Just look,” she said, pointing to the brick-laid lanes, "at the neat by-lanes.”
Harjinder's village has won a state award, one of 858 Haryana villages to be similarly awarded for freeing themselves from the ancient national habit of open defecation. This is emerging India’s abiding shame: An estimated 600 million people still do not have access to any kind of toilets, according to a 2009 study done by the Asian Development Bank.
It may be the world’s second-fastest growing economy, but there are 122 million households in India with no toilets, according to Unicef.
With a budget of Rs 181 crore, the campaign in Haryana is one of India's greatest successes, producing 1.6 million toilets. The target: 1.9 million.
The helping hand to these villages comes from New Delhi.
The 11-year-old Total Sanitation Programme is one of nine flagship programmes of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, jointly funded by the centre, states and the panchayats.
Like other programmes meant to build a more inclusive India, the sanitation scheme is limited to families below the poverty line and includes community toilets for schools, anganwadis (child-health centers) and community complexes for women.
The idea is to make rural India a cleaner, healthier place, with toilets for everyone by 2012.
A key requirment: Getting local-government institutions to push for change.
“Motivating villagers and creating awareness was probably the biggest challenge,” said P. Raghavendra Rao, principal secretary for development and panchayats in Harayana. “Actually, this programme emphasises more on behavioural changes than just on the construction of toilets.”
That seems to be working.
About 800 gram panchayats have now applied for the 2009 sanitation award, in addition to the 858 that already have it.
In Kishangarh, women need no longer wait for sunset before venturing into the fields to defecate.
"There is hardly any house in the village which does not have a pucca (proper) toilet," said newly elected village sarpanch (head) Rajinder Kaur, who has built a western-style toilet at home with her own money.
Flanking the Ambala- Delhi national highway, the Dhola Majra village rivals Kishangarh in cleanliness.
Here, sarpanch Ravinder Kumar showed us community toilets for those who don't have their own.
Since no village has a sewer system, they dig pits up to 35-feet deep and connect them to septic tanks.
“The campaign has changed the lives of everybody here," said Kumar. "Even children coming to the anganwadi and local government school now use toilets.” The campaign has its snags, with allegations of money being filched.
In Karnal district, Baldev Singh of Poojam village said they were told to build the toilets, pending state reimbursement.
“But once we did, the officials conveniently forgot us,” said Baldev. In another award-winning Karnal village, Manak Majra, Roshan Lal said he lived below the poverty line (BPL) but his application for a toilet appeared to have, well, been flushed away. The family still defecates in the open.
Former sarpanch Gulab Singh said this might be because the BPL lists are flawed, and Lal’s name may have been struck off. “We will get the matter checked,” said Gulab.
(Re-Imagining India is a joint initiative of Hindustan Times and Mint to track and understand policy reforms that could, if successful, transform India’s efforts at inclusive growth. To see previous articles in the series, log on to: www.hindustantimes.com/reimaginingindia)