Nepal | Toilet Training

Sanitation movements across the country will no longer be entitled to government subsidies

The Nepal government’s ban on toilet subsidies presents a challenge to activists who feel that the support was essential to success in villages like Gudel. SMRITI MALLAPATY FOR THE CARAVAN
01 June, 2013

FIVE YEARS AGO, any mention of the village Gudel usually induced giggles amongst Nepalese. This was because the first syllable—‘Gu’—of its name is the Nepali word for faeces. This unfortunate homophony was compounded by Gudel’s poor sanitary practices. Residents didn’t have modern toilets, and were habituated to squatting in the open, or using the pig toilets next to their houses, which are clustered together on a cirque. These toilets comprised planks in sheds of wood and stone constructed above pig pens—waste that fell into the pens would be consumed by the pigs, which were being reared for meat.

Today, Gudel, in Nepal’s northeastern district of Solukhumbu, has a very different reputation. Between each house and its pig pen is a toilet made of chiselled stone blocks and corrugated metal roofing. Signboards, like the one outside the Namaste Lodge and Restaurant, near Gudel’s central secondary school, declare the village’s improved sanitary conditions with the words: “Open Defecation Free Area Gudel, Solukhumbu.”

A little over a billion of the poorest people in the world defecate in the open, the largest number of them in India. Open defecation contaminates drinking water sources and food, with deadly diseases like cholera and typhoid. Pig toilet use, though not officially categorised as open defecation, carries many of the same risks, since faeces remains in the pig pen, and is not safely disposed of and confined. As with open defecation, this faeces can contaminate ground water through the soil, and, through flies and other carriers, contaminate food.

One afternoon in October last year, Jitna Janam Rai, the man primarily responsible for the changes in Gudel’s approach to sanitation, sat on the patio of Namaste Lodge with friends from the school and the local NGO Navajyoti Srijana Yuwa Samiti, breathing in the cool air rolling across the hills. “I am known here as the toilet police,” he told me, before bursting into a wide-mouthed laugh. Jitna works as Solukhumbu project coordinator for the dZi Foundation, a Colorado-based not-for-profit organisation that supports village development in the region. He initiated the ‘Ek Ghar, Ek Charpi’ (One House, One Toilet) project in 2007, a year after a mysterious plague swept through Gudel, killing seven people. The exact cause of that outbreak was never identified, but many pointed to the pig toilets as possible culprits and began voicing their desire for modern toilets to prevent future tragedy.

In early 2008, dZi organised a proposal-writing workshop for the residents of Gudel, to help them raise funds to improve the village. Many of the draft proposals that were written at this workshop were aimed at tackling the problem of pig toilets. Jitna, who represented dZi at the workshop, reported back to his colleagues in Kathmandu, who sourced funds from international donors for a three-year project to build 900 modern toilets for Gudel’s 4,400 residents. Between 2008 and 2010, each household constructed a toilet using donated money and materials; a toilet pan, pipes, a metal sheet, a bag of cement and 2,300 Nepali rupees were provided to each home.

Jitna and his team soon realised they faced an unexpected obstacle—people’s reluctance to alter their habits. “It is extremely difficult to change the behaviour of certain Rai and Sherpa communities who use pig and compost toilets,” he said. In 2011, members of dZi attended a government training programme on Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS), an approach developed in Bangladesh at the turn of the century. Through community mobilisation and behaviour-triggering techniques, CLTS seeks to shame individuals out of open defecation; the 2011 workshop focused on School-Led Total Sanitation (SLTS), a Nepali adaptation of CLTS that puts schools and students at the centre of campaigns. “The school as an institution will always be around, therefore they offer more long-term oversight than the community,” explained Jitna. dZi trained a group of eager students from Gudel’s seven schools, and launched a three-month campaign in early August 2011.

As the movement gathered momentum—at its peak, it involved 1,300 active volunteers, including teachers, parents and members of local clubs—it also grew more aggressive. Youth groups would set out on regular patrols, and publicly embarrass violators. “If we saw a house still using their pig toilet, we would put up a flag in front of it and beat drums,” said Motiram Rasaili, a tenth-standard student and ‘sanitation missionary’. The activists would look into the pig toilet and raise a flag—black, green or yellow—to match the colour of the violator’s faeces. Community radio Solu FM broadcast names of transgressors to over 700,000 listeners across eastern Nepal. Not to conform meant the denial of access to community forests for firewood, government-subsidised salt, processing of citizenship cards, and markets to sell one’s slaughtered pigs. “This was primarily enforced by the community, with government support through public schools and limited engagement by the local village development committee,” said Jitna.

Over time, residents’ use of the modern toilets increased until finally, on 12 August 2011, Gudel was declared Open Defecation Free (ODF) in a major event attended by 700 guests, including district officials, and representatives of the country’s major political parties.

Despite Gudel’s success, however, activists like Jitna face a hurdle in replicating the model elsewhere in Nepal. In January 2013, in Kathmandu, the National Planning Commission and the United Nations organised a ceremony in which, among other decisions, the government resolved to ban household subsidies. The intent to ban isn’t new—in fact, Nepal’s 2011 Sanitation and Hygiene Master Plan declared that “there should be no subsidy for household level toilets except for the ultra poor.” An honorary guest at the ceremony, former prime minister Baburam Bhattarai expressed confidence that with the “wholehearted” commitment of all government bodies, and without subsidies, Nepal would fill its 38 percent gap in sanitation coverage and speed towards a target of universal sanitation by 2017.

Among those who believe subsidies are harmful is Kamal Kar, chairman of the Kolkata-based CLTS Foundation, and founder of the CLTS movement. “This is great news,” said Kar, over the phone from Bangkok, in response to the government’s announcement. “CLTS is based on the assumption that no human being wants to live on shit or eat each other’s shit,” said Kar, who argues that subsidies distort and slow down this process of social awakening. He cited cases in India of people “shitting in the bush, talking on their mobile phone, finishing their job, kickstarting their motorbike and going. If you think these people also need subsidy, something has gone wrong somewhere.” Bhushan Tuladhar, regional technical advisor for South Asia at UN-HABITAT’s office in Kathmandu, expressed similar views, saying that in Nepal, “even people who could afford not to, would wait for the subsidy”. Recipients of subsidised toilets lack the sense of ownership essential for long-term maintenance, added Tuladhar. There is also the element of cost—whether a country like Nepal can afford the heavy investment required to subsidise construction.

With the government removing subsidies, leaving activists only the social reform aspect of the movement to work with, Jitna expressed concerns about requests from villages such as Cheskam for toilet programmes like the one in neighbouring Gudel. “How can we police, but not build toilets for them?” Jitna said. “In Cheskam, only those with money have toilets. Others may understand that toilets prevent the spread of disease, but may not be able to afford one.”

Nawal Kishor Mishra, director of the Central Regional Monitoring and Supervision Office at Nepal’s Department of Water Supply and Sewerage, agreed that Gudel serves as an example of the need for a two-pronged approach to the problem. “A no-subsidy approach will not work,” he insisted, in his office in Kathmandu a few days after the January ceremony. The ban on subsidies, he said, follows from a disingenuous interpretation of history—though many subsidy projects failed because they neglected the social dimension of change, that does not warrant blacklisting subsidies. Mishra, too, believes that the recent ODF movement cannot solely be attributed to the no-subsidy approach, and that other villages, such as Cheskam, deserve the opportunity that Gudel had. “The government pays 80 to 90 percent of water supply projects, plus operation and maintenance, so why not give support for sanitation?” he said.

In Cheskam, I visited the home of farmer Kheti Maya Kulung and her family. It was late afternoon and Kheti was peeling hot roasted potatoes under her thatched roof. One of the five children gathered round the fire was her eight-year-old son, Sandeep, who wore a navy blue school uniform. Last monsoon, he suffered from uncontrollable diarrhoea, sleeping on a plastic sheet for a whole month as his body grew swollen, covered in tiny red bumps. Kheti Maya, who has heard about what happened in Gudel, suspects her pig toilet was the source of the illness. “We would be happy if they built us a modern water-sealed toilet,” she told me, adding that she would build a pit latrine herself if she wasn’t so busy looking after her children. With the ban on subsidies, it appears that Kheti Maya’s quest for a healthier life for herself and her children will now be a little more difficult.