Tuesday, July 25, 2006


In August 1997, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of India’s independence, I felt that the best way to commemorate this, to pay homage to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, was to work to eliminate service latrines from the slums of Howrah.

A ‘service latrine’ is a toilet that has to be manually cleaned out, by lowly sweepers. This is an arrangement that was widespread in old towns and cities across India. The image of a person carrying a basket of excreta on his / her head – had been the subject of a call to conscience by Mahatma Gandhi. But it was only in 1986 that the govt. of India finally enacted a law banning such ‘manual scavenging’. Local bodies had to ensure the implementation of this and a programme was subsequently initiated to provide a subsidy for the conversion of service latrines into sanitary toilets.

We had found and demonstrated through a pilot project the solution to this apparently insoluble problem, which affected thousands of people, and was responsible for severe environmental health risks. The lives of hundreds of people had been positively transformed. And very foul spots, in the midst of the metropolis, were rehabilitated.

And now, we had researched and developed a community-based programme for the complete elimination of service latrines from Howrah’s slums. We had surveyed slum households and learnt about their situation and the willingness to pay for the toilets. We had engaged with a leading housing finance company and got them to give loans for building toilets. We had got the approval of the metropolitan development authority, who also agreed to advance the govt subsidy component up-front, for 10 toilet units at a time.

I felt like a scientist who has made an earth-shattering new discovery, expanding the frontiers of knowledge and transforming human life. (As a 11-year old, I had read with rapt awe Eve Curie's biography of Madame Curie which my mother had presented on new year's day in 1972, with the inscribed exhortation: "Go through this book like a book worm & may it inspire you to great deeds.")

Read the full essay here.


Darius said...

Gandhi's one of my heroes.

It's a mystery to me why more individuals are not passionately concerned with the good of the many. If we don't catch on fast that our concern needs to focus beyond ourselves and our own little lifetimes, we're going to be a flash in the pan as a species.

kathy said...

Gandhi is one of my heroes too! it is very sad.