Ezhilarasu slaps the sullan (an insect) biting her back. Raising her body, squatting on her toes, she chases the insect away. Feet pressed on wet soil and wild grass, she defecates amidst the Seemai Karuvelam forest at “BC Kollai (Backward Caste’s backyard)”, the empty land located at the end of BC Street. She, along with other women from SC (Scheduled Caste) street, are up before daybreak to join the routine unorganised procession to the BC Kollai. That’s where residents of the SC (Scheduled Caste) Street defecate every morning.
Persistent State intervention have changed some things in the village: almost every house has a toilet now. Worryingly, this has only benefitted the BC women and little benefit has come for the Scheduled Caste women from Sarvarajanpettai. Though the Dalits have toilets, the local authorities have not given them water supply leaving the toilets useless.
Sarvarajanpettai qualifies as a typical village in Tamil Nadu where the caste divide is strikingly blatant. Trapped at the confluence of a stream and a canal and 20 km from Chidambaram in Cuddalore district, the village is so narrow that it can accommodate only two parallel streets.
The longer among them, called the "BC Street", it runs from the Kollai at one end and arches at the other to form a vague ‘J’. From there, it continues in a straight line to form the "SC Street", also called the “colony”.
The (a)symmetric caste divide
The village’s only primary school is on the BC street. The only over-head tank that has water is on the BC street. The hand pumps always work there and most houses have direct water pipelines. The BC and SC people in Sarvarajanpettai have their own temples, and shacks to buy basic supplies.
The former’s street is paved with concrete or tar, with cement houses dotting either side. The latter’s is a dirt road and thatched huts line the road, and there are some huts with no view of the road. The villagers have normalised the caste divide to such an extent that even to defecate in the open, women from the BC and SC households for years strictly used different lands located diagonally opposite, outside the village.
Surge in development
The aftermath of the floods played a crucial role in the infrastructural development of Sarvarajanpettai. The village has seen its share of disasters, from the tsunami in 2004 to cyclones Nisha (2006) and Thane (2011). The 2015 floods made it unsafe for women to wade through muddy water and find a spot to defecate, and in Centre’s Swachh Bharath Abhiyan, there seemed to be a ray of hope.
By the end of 2016, 119 of the 249 houses in the village had basic toilets at a minimum budget of Rs 12,000. About Rs 20 lakh has been used since 2015 to build individual toilets in Sarvarajanpettai. According to divisional data accessed by Express, 195 of the 249 houses had toilets by the start of 2018.
In the verandah of his home, the panchayat union secretary D Anandhan proudly produces the list of people who got a toilet in the last couple of years. “Those who could afford built the toilet themselves and we helped them get their Rs 12,000 from the government. For the rest, we built it ourselves. Only a few houses don’t have toilets,” he says wielding documents in which, photos of women, standing next to a brand new or under-constructed toilet, are affixed.
Apart from individual toilets, the government in 2001 also decided to build Integrated Women’s Sanitary Complex (IWSC) in all the 12,618 Village Panchayats in the State, at an approximate area of 750 sq ft each. In the 2011-12 budget, Rs 170 cr was allocated to renovate these. The complex at Sarvarajanpettai was built at the end of the SC street.
With government intervention through schemes like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, things have changed in the last two years and almost all households in the village were able to build toilets with financial assistance. Prima facie, open defecation must have come to an end.
Being left out
But when Express visited Sarvajanpettai at 5 am, in the first week of 2018, the BC Kollai was as busy as always. Worryingly, it’s only women in the BC community who are able to use the toilets. The panchayat union secretary explains, “some villagers resist change. They want their old ways. They are comfortable defecating in the open.”
Between the maze of houses on SC Street, are tiny blocks of toilets that can fit one person if he or she does not stretch the hands too wide.These toilets, in the ‘colony’, have become store rooms for firewood and fodder. The local authorities have not given water connection to the SC Street making the toilets unusable. So nothing has changed for the Dalit women.
“Yes, the government built toilets in our backyards. But we don’t have water. How do we use it then?” asks R Valli, a resident of the SC Street claiming that only a small fraction of toilets on SC Street have water supply. Some toilets in their backyards have become storage rooms for firewood. Others use it for keeping farm equipment.
Some toilets are incomplete, others have broken doors or are water logged. Finally, only about a third of people living (closer to the BC Street) on the SC Street have functional toilets. The residents of the SC Street alleged that most of their toilets were not given pipelines.
When the local pachayat officials were contacted, they initially remarked that “habitual open defecation,” was a cultural problem and not a structural one. However when they were confronted with the people’s version that they did not have water supply, the officials admitted that many of the residents did not have pipelines to their bathrooms. The lack of water supply can be attributed to two main reasons: the overhead tank that was built to supply water to SC Street has been dysfunctional for over two years now and there is no subsidy to get pipelines.
The officials claimed that a caution deposit of Rs 2,000 has to be paid to get pipelines and that a monthly charge of Rs 50 must be paid to ensure continued supply.
P Partheeban, the Block Development Officer (BDO) said, “a lot of them are not in a financial position to be able to afford this money for their bathroom.” He added he was unaware that most toilets were dormant. “We have sent a pipeline extension proposal to the government. I will ensure that every household gets water supply soon,” he promised.
While the toilets in the backyard are redundant, the IWSC is used, but only to tie cattle. Like the backyard toilets, IWSC — the common toilet — too doesn’t have water supply as the one head tank that is supposed to supply water to it has been dysfunctional for over two years. The toilet bowls are filled with straws, dirt and even growing vegetation. When the BDO (scheme) G Ananthan was asked about the sanitary complex, he said that the government gave funds for implementation and that there wasn’t enough for maintenance. “These complexes should be maintained by the locals themselves. They neither have the initiative nor awareness to maintain it,” he said. However, he said that the complex would be fixed soon.
Residents of the SC Street, despite being entitled to multiple welfare schemes that ensure basic sanitation, do not benefit as they cannot afford to pay extra for water supply.
A Rohini, a resident of the SC Street agrees that using toilets feel far more safer and is more comfortable. "I used to store firewood in the toilet. But when my daughter-in-law came home, she cleared it out and uses the toilet. It's hard to fetch water, but we use it on rainy days for sure," she says observing that the younger generation is keen on using toilets. "On rainy days, we have to sit opposite to men and defecate and it's embarrassing. We don't want that. Having a toilet means safety for us" says Thavamani, Rohini's neighbour.
Speaking about how toilets have changed her life, D Revathy from the SC Street laughs as she says that she is done with Sullan and Nulambu (mosquito) biting her open back.