Thideer Nagar is a slum situated in the heart of Madurai, in India’s Tamil Nadu state. It is the oldest slum in the city. Migrants from nearby Ramanathapuram, Sivagangai, Theni and Dindigul district who settled here about 60 years ago created this slum, which has since grown to its current size of 1,300 families and over 5,000 people.
For the last 12 years, the Madurai Vattara Kalanjiam, a Federation of Women’s Self Help Groups (SHGs, or Kalanjiams) supported by Dhan Foundation’s and now by WSI’s “EMPOWER: WomenStrong Madurai” project, has worked with more than 500 Thideer Nagar families, enabling them to address their pressing livelihood, infrastructural and economic development issues.
Most homes lack toilets and washrooms, due to space constraints. When Dhan Foundation began its work here, open defecation, on the roadsides, on pathways and in drainage channels, was rampant. The community toilet block, left uncared for after its construction several years ago by the city government (the Municipal Corporation of Madurai), had long since become dysfunctional. Men and women were forced to use the railway line, wasteland and pathways behind the slum. Women were the worst affected, and the situation was doubly intolerable on rainy days.
Adjacent to the open defecation sites were the drinking water taps where the women of Thideer Nagar routinely fetched water for cooking. With this proximity, family members regularly fell ill with waterborne diseases – cholera, typhoid, jaundice — as well as with vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, chikungunya and dengue fever, caused by mosquitoes bred from such wastewater. An analysis of financial transactions undertaken within the SHGs here revealed that the women borrowed more frequently from their Groups simply to meet the expenses for treating illnesses caused by this failure of community sanitation.
Slum dwellers also tended to wash their clothes on the pathways directly in front of their houses, which led to frequent quarrels between families, often creating social tension. Struggling with these and other challenges, residents had begun to feel cramped, vulnerable and helpless about finding lasting solutions.
To put an end to open defecation once and for all, the women in the SHG Federation decided to renovate the public lavatory that had been dysfunctional for so many years. In early 2009, women leaders approached the relevant officials at the Municipal Corporation of Madurai, which at the time was implementing the Government of India’s Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM); these officials informed the women that the Corporation had already built a community sanitary complex there and that it would not be possible to construct a new one. However, they added, if the community itself was ready to contribute to the effort, the Corporation could support it, through a community participation fund available under JNNURM.
The Madurai Vattara Kalanjiam agreed to mobilize residents’ individual and collective contributions. Women Federation leaders undertook a survey to assess the need and preparedness of the community to undertake this project. After several meetings and intense discussions, the women finally agreed to pay what the Corporation had indicated as their share and began planning the renovation. The old lavatory block had only two complexes with four seats, and one bathroom each for males and females; wIth so many community residents interested in using the new sanitary complex, the women planned for nine seats and two bathrooms in each complex, to serve both men and women more satisfactorily.
With the help of a Dhan Foundation engineer, the renovation of the older lavatory complex was estimated at 550,000 Indian Rupees (Rs.), or $8,662. People came forward to contribute Rs. 125,000 ($1,969) collectively, and the Municipal Corporation made up the balance of Rs. 425,000 ($6,993), through the JNNURM Community Participation Fund. Kalanjiam women leaders volunteered to supervise the work, which they managed completely, from planning to the purchase of materials to execution.
The work was completed expertly, and at present, 18 toilets and 4 bathrooms are in place, complete with a fully operating underground sewer system connecting the facilities to an existing sewer line. After nearly 10 months of work, on December 1, 2009, the community sanitary complex was inaugurated by the Mayor and Commissioner of Madurai Corporation and opened for use. An awareness program led by a local folklore artist was organized prior to the opening, to educate the public on the ill effects of open defecation and on proper use of the toilets. Now the community toilet complex is maintained solely with monies earned from this newly dignified pay-and-use facility.
Impact of the women’s Community Toilet Initiative:
1. Nearly 500 members, male and female, use this toilet every day.
2. 15 Executive Committee members have been promoted to manage this sanitary complex.
3. A community group has been trained in maintaining the complex, managing its finances and discussing further improvements. A supervisor has also been appointed and is paid $15.75 monthly, to verify the accounts, deposit the earnings in the bank and ensure the cleanliness of the complex.
4. The sanitary complex is now self-run, with all its income generated by its users. On average, the facility brings in Rs. 20,000 ($320) monthly, generating a monthly surplus of Rs. 4,000 ($64) after paying all costs; the surplus is utilized to cover the toilets’ maintenance and upgrades, as needed. Two people appointed to look after the lavatory around the clock work on a shift basis and are paid Rs. 98, or $1.57, per shift.
5. Community attitudes toward improved sanitation and the importance of preventing open defecation have changed.
6. There has been evidence of reduction in disease and in the resultant health expenditures. Specifically, cholera has been reduced among the children, and the incidence of skin disease presenting among both children and women has declined.
7. Now that they don’t need to spend so much time fetching water, children — particularly girls — have been able to attend school regularly, with pride and confidence.
8. A clean, tidy, eco-friendly, hygienic environment has been created in the slum, with provisions for its sustainability.
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