“By constructing toilets I am not only ensuring a clean environment but also saving the dignity of women and girls”
Kalavati is a mason and she is on a mission – to build toilets across all slums and lower income neighbourhoods in her city.
Kalavati, a 50 year old passionate woman mason went house-to-house, collected funds and constructed toilets in her village all by herself. This is her story of how her efforts brought change and improved lives in the households of Uttar Pradesh.
At present, the crowded Rakhi Mandi shanty is her worksite. Till around two years ago, there was not even a single toilet in the vicinity – not in homes, not in the community. Drains overflowing with sewage and faeces created highly unsanitary living conditions. Open defecation was the norm and girls and women, in particular, were extremely vulnerable to ill-health, harassment and even violent assaults.
Taking into account the dismal situation prevailing in Rakhi Mandi, Shramik Bharti, a local non government organisation that works on sanitation issues, decided to get toilets constructed in the area with the support of WaterAid, a UK-based charity. That is how Kalavati landed up working in the neighbourhood.
However, Kalavati was not always the confident construction worker that she is today. Hailing from Sitapur, one of India’s most backward districts, she came to Kanpur around 40 years back, as the 14-year-old bride. Being a child bride she never had the opportunity to go to school and yet she managed to run her home efficiently and bring up her two children. Times were always hard but she always had her husband’s support.
“For 700 families living in the area there was not even one community toilet, which forced everyone to defecate in the open. Had someone tried to draw a picture of hell that slum would have fitted the description perfectly,” she recalls.
Kalavati wanted to do something for her locality and Shramik Bharti was looking for committed people like her who wanted to bring about change from within. she had made up her mind to find out how a public toilet could be constructed in Raja ka Purwa.
Next, she approached the Commissioner of the Kanpur Municipal Corporation, to inquire about the schemes they could avail of under the urban development programme. The highly impressed officer gave her a simple plan – collect Rs 1,00,000 from the people and the Corporation would add another Rs 2,00,000. It took Rs 3,00,000 to construct a ten-seat community toilet at that time.
Although she knew that gathering funds from the rickshaw pullers, domestic workers and daily wagers who stayed in Raja ka Purwa would be difficult, she took the tough task head on and even managed to get Rs 50,000 – everyone gave as much as they could from Rs 10 to a maximum of a few hundred rupees. Meanwhile, Shramik Bharti arranged for a Rs 700,000 assistance from the state government’s Non-conventional Energy Development Agency (NEDA).
However, what was her passion at one time has also become a necessity today. Since she lost her husband, Kalavati is single-handedly running her household from her construction earnings. At present, she is caring for her elder daughter, Lakshmi, and her two grandchildren who are living with her after her son-in-law’s untimely death.
Her working hours are long as she has not fixed any time limit. “How long I work depends on how much time a particular project needs to get completed. Sometimes we work even at night or start very early in the mornings,” she says. Incidentally, she has developed her very own sewer design and construction technique, which she feels is a good move, “I have perfected my own way of laying the sewer line – nowhere does the water gets blocked.”
Always cheerful, Kalavati never tires because “I enjoy my work. It gives me immense happiness…This feeling does not let me feel tired”. And her duty doesn’t end with constructing toilets, motivating people to use them is part of her message.
“It is women like her who are the uncelebrated brand ambassadors of India’s sanitation movement.”
If a middle-age woman from a small village can do this kind of effort to bring positive change to society then why can’t our youth ? Youth is the power of nation !