I bet the title just made my mother well up with pride. Before you get weepy mom, I’m not actually a toilet inspector but everyone here seems to think I am. And it looks like a great job!
We’ve arrive in the southern state of Karnataka. Plan is to spend two weeks travelling around to see if a program UNICEF had from 2003-2007 changed anything among village folk. Seems toilets are not too popular here, the people have their own traditional ways and don’t like officials from the big smoke coming along and telling them to confine themselves to a small cement structure.
The program covered more than just toilets. It also aimed to provide clean drinking water, create gardens in schools so the meal they all get at lunch time has some vegetables, install separate toilets for girls and boys, promote ‘Nali Kali’ (Joyful Learning) and the big one; convince people to wash their hands after going to the toilet and before meals.
Our main issue so far has been that the schools all know that we were coming. We were meant to be testing UNICEF and seeing if their intervention worked. But the schools saw us as inspectors so what we observed may not have been the school on an average day.
The second school we visited was very impressive. We had only just started on school No. 1 when word came through that No. 2 had a fancy meal prepared for us and so we had to get there immediately. Being humongous India ‘the next school’ was an hour away, but we reached and were greeted like returning war heroes. Just as we sat down to eat the entire staff squealed “Hand washing!” and we were paraded out to a bucket they had prepared in the centre of the school courtyard, on an elevated plateau so everyone could see, and right next to the national flag, which made for some lovely photos.
They sat us down and for almost an hour served us a variety of things that I will never be able to describe properly. There was the doughy chilli thing, and the round sweet piece of something. Lots of rice with accompanying coloured water. I was the unfortunate centre of attention as I was eating my one tiny piece of food extremely slowly and guarding my plate from anything anyone would try to put on it. My colleagues noticed the first hygiene strike against the school during the meal; the principal dirtied his hands serving us, grabbed the nearest student and scrubbed himself clean on her skirt! And a clean uniform is something that they are meant to monitor every day!
Next the team split to check out the school and interview different people. I was sent off to do worksheets with the tiny tots on whether they take a bath, wash their hands, that sort of thing. One guy proudly announced how he always uses the toilet and washes his hands with soap. Things were looking good for school No.2, especially when I looked outside and saw the garden and separate boy/girl toilets. Another thing the schools are meant to have are cabinets (of the governmental kind, not wooden). One student is meant to be health minister and together with his team check all the students daily for clean nails, hair, that kind of thing. We were really not expecting anyone to still be doing that 2 years on. But when we mentioned it the health minister jumped up and grabbed his crew.
Things started to unravel when the proud boy who uses the toilet asked to go and Yusra saw him leap up and take off out the school gate. On his return she asked what that had been about. He just shrugged and said how he went on the road, why wouldn’t he? Did he wash his hands? He might have done had he had the school had running water. I went to visit another team mate, Ina, to see how she was getting on with the school cabinet. She whispered “It’s all fake” and suddenly the dream was over. She had heard people congratulate the health minister on his new position. One of his cabinet; the tooth brushing checker had been asked how she checks whether or not people have brushed. She almost started crying; no one had prepared her for that question.
We got a little curious about the separate toilets. Yusra searched out a student who spoke Hindi so we could avoid interpreters (another major problem is having an interviewee who knows nothing of the interventions and an interpreter who not only knows it inside out – but was in charge of the whole thing). We gave up on interviews and just asked the kids casually what the story was with the toilets. They said there are no toilets. What I’d been looking at were some storage rooms with a girl’s head painted on one and a boy’s head painted on the other to give the impression of a toilet.
Next we had to find out about the ‘bio intensive’ garden that looked so pretty. I never questioned why it was just a square piece of soil. I presumed the seeds had just been planted and that in a few months something would be visible above ground. Some students rushed over and asked if we liked their new garden. How new? About 6 hours.
In a way I was impressed, in a day they had cleaned the school, elected a cabinet and made them learn off some detailed answers, installed a ‘Nali Kali’ classroom and taught the kids songs, made the storage room look like a toilet and dug the garden. The sad part was that the kids still had no toilet, and diseases from water with human excrement in it are rampant. Most of the schools we’ve visited have no water, the kids bring from home or else go all day with none. The craziest thing we’ve seen has been a school with three toilet blocks made by three different water and sanitation schemes, and none are in use because there is no water in them. A field is much preferred to a toilet that is stinking from having no water to flush.
Right now we’re over a week into this field work. We’ve just moved to the next district and so far things are looking much better there. The biggest problem in this area is water. When we asked state officials about that they said there is no problem; every village has a well, which is true. But the schools have never installed a mechanism to direct it to their building or store it there. And national level programs seem to keep hearing “Schools have no toilets” and so build more!
So now all that needs to be done is to make the toilets workable, convince the people to use them, and get some soap for after and we can tell UNICEF that Gulbarga is a happy little town!
Photos will be up soon, computers are about as scarce as healthy toilet habits around here.
Tags: India, internship, UNICEF