CHENNAI: Ezhilarasu slaps the sullan (an insect) biting her back. Feet pressed on wet soil and wild grass, she defecates in the Seemai Karuvelam forest at “BC Kollai (Backward Caste’s backyard)”, the empty land located at the end of BC Street. That’s where residents of the SC (Scheduled Caste) Street relieve themselves every morning.
Sarvarajanpettai, a village in Cuddalore, is no different from other villages in Tamil Nadu, with a visible geographical caste divide. There has been consistent infrastructural development and state effort to improve the lifestyle of the village, but a lot remains to be done. The Swachh Bharath Abhiyan that ensured toilets in every household did not ensure water supply.
The toilets in the ‘colony’, or the side occupied by SC residents, have become store rooms for firewood and fodder. The ‘lower’ caste women continue to defecate in the open even on rainy days. A pipeline connection costs `2,000 and residents will have to pay a monthly water rent to the government if they want water supply at their toilets. Even the Integrated Women’s Sanitation Complex (IWSC) — the common toilet — doesn’t have water supply as the one head tank that is supposed to supply water to it has been dysfunctional. Residents of the SC Street, despite being entitled to a welfare scheme, do not benefit as they cannot afford to pay extra for water supply.
Two months after floods had struck Tamil Nadu in 2015, Sarvarajanpettai did not dry up. Situated 20 km from the temple town of Chidambaram, Sarvarajanpettai’s residential strip is a narrow stretch of land trapped at the confluence of a stream and a canal — Valliyangal Odai and Manavaikal. When surplus water flows through either of these channels, Sarvarajanpettai gets swamped. During the 2015 floods, Ezhilarasu says water reached as high as one’s neck. When the levels receded, she, along with other women from SC Street, joined the routine unorganised procession to the BC Kollai. On the other hand, the BC women used empty plots between their backyards and Manavaikal. The men who use the river beds, would share land with women during rains.
The (a)symmetric caste divide
Sarvarajanpettai is wide enough for just two streets. BC Street, the longer among them, runs from the Kollai at one end and arches at the other to form a ‘J’. The end of the ‘J’ continues in a straight line to form the SC Street, which is also called the “colony”.
The village’s only primary school is on the BC street. The only overhead tank that has water is on the BC street. The hand pumps always work there and most houses have direct water pipelines. The BC Street is paved with concrete or tar, with cement houses dotting either side. The SC Street is a dirt road and thatched huts line it. Between these houses are tiny blocks of toilets that can fit one person if he or she does not stretch the hands too wide. Most of them remain unused.
Surge in development
The aftermath of the floods played a crucial role in the infrastructural development of Sarvarajanpettai. The village has seen the tsunami in 2004, 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 `12,000. About `20 lakh has been used since 2015 to build individual toilets in Sarvarajanpettai. According to divisional data, 195 of the 249 houses had toilets by the start of 2018.
Apart from individual toilets, the government in 2001 also decided to build IWSC in all the 12,618 Village Panchayats in the state, at an approximate area of 750 sq ft each. In 2011-12 budget, `170 crore was allocated to renovate these. The complex at Sarvarajanpettai was built at the end of the SC street.
Being left out
“Some villagers resist change. They want their old ways. They are comfortable defecating in the open,” said Panchayat union secretary D Anandhan.
However, women who defecate in the open have a different explanation. “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 said most of their toilets were not given pipelines.