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How a ship container solved the toilet problem in a TN village

By Shobha Warrier/
January 05, 2015 09:04 IST
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Suresh Menon with his toilets

A used shipping container transforms the lives of women in a remote Tamil Nadu village. Shobha Warrier/ reports.

'For the first time in our lives, we bathe before we head to school; that too, in a bathroom that has doors. We are as clean as the other children in our school. I cannot explain how difficult it was for us to bathe and relieve ourselves till now. Today, there are no words that suffice to express our happiness,' says a beaming schoolgirl, Sheela.

'Nobody who hasn't experienced it for herself can know what a woman feels when she has to relieve herself in the open. It was almost impossible to do so during the rainy season, but we had no other option other than to brave the rain and use open spaces to meet our private needs. I do not know how to thank you for the toilets we have in our village. I never imagined that I would have bathrooms and toilets in my lifetime,' says 75-year-old Pavuammal.

There are many more such women and children like Pavuammal and Sheela in Manjakkudi, a small village near Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu.

The person to thank for installing toilets -- exclusively for the use of women and children in the village -- is Sheela Balaji, member of the TVS group and managing trustee of the Swami Dayananda Educational Trust.

Working for the educational trust at Swami Dayananda Saraswathi's birthplace in Manjakkudi, she has had first-hand experience of the difficulties women face here.

"It is a small village of around 1,500 people; around 400 families. But nobody from the farming community that constitutes the majority of the population had toilets in the house. Many of them do not have room within their houses to build toilets either," she says.

"Late in the evening on every single day, these women had to walk half a mile in order to relieve themselves. I felt terrible after having witnessed this pathetic situation and wanted to build toilets for the women. That was when I bumped into Suresh Menon and came to hear of the toilets he has designed."

Unlike many armchair critics, filmmaker Suresh Menon believes in action. If he found traffic congestion in a place was too bad, he would think of ways to reduce congestion and see to it that the city traffic police implemented his suggestions. "After I started coordinating traffic arrangements with the Chennai police, I found that quite a few of my suggestions were implemented," he says.

Similarly, when he saw there were no public toilets in the city, he started thinking of designing one that was mobile.

"This was much before the prime minister spoke about toilets and the Swachch Bharat Abhiyaan," says Menon. "My idea was to take these mobile toilets to places where crowds gather, like the beach, say, and take it back at night to clean it. I was talking about this idea to the mayor and corporation officials. But nothing came out of it."

That was when he found out about a shipping container that was on sale for Rs 50,000. He bought it. "As it is sturdy, easily transportable and has a lifespan of 30 to 40 years, I thought it would be ideal as a mobile toilet in Indian conditions. I also wanted a simple, inexpensive solution to this problem."

He decided to fit five 4x8 feet toilets in the 8x20 feet container. "I decided not to separate them into bathrooms and toilets. Each unit has a commode, a sink, a shower unit, water taps, a mirror over the sink, lights and an exhaust fan. There are three Western (sit-down) and two Indian (squat) toilets in each container. I want women, especially those bereft of indoor plumbing in villages, to bathe in dignity."

When Balaji had that chance meeting with Menon nine months ago, the conversation veered to the toilets that he was putting together. She was impressed with the prototype and felt the sturdy steel container would be useful for the women in villages to use.

Balaji does not like to call them toilets. "I prefer to describe them as public conveniences. I was also impressed to see the inside of each bathroom/toilet," she says.

As the trust had already built a community hall for the villagers, she decided to place the container-toilet near the hall. They also built a septic tank and connected the toilets to it, and powered it using a nearby electricity pole. She also employed a person to clean them every day.

"We decided that these bathrooms and toilets were meant only for women and children, and not men! I thought women needed the toilets much more than men did. I installed it in July, a month before the prime minister spoke about toilets on Independence Day."

In spite of the simple design, it cost Menon Rs 700,000 to build the five toilets and a month to finish making them. "In Manjakudi, they have connected the toilets to a sock pit; alternately, this can be connected to the drainage system in a city. Or else, you can have bio-tanks like you do in Kerala houseboats (where the water used is recycled and used to water plants)."

After a lifetime spent bathing under a public tap or in the Kaveri river, the women were so happy they could bathe in the privacy of a bathroom. So much so that they expressed the desire to have one more, as a result of which Balaji has ordered one more unit for the same village.

"An old lady told us that more than them, it was the young that had a hard time because of the absence of bathrooms. Similarly, a schoolgirl told me that she now bathed every day and went to school very clean. I am happy because they are happy."

Menon says this idea can be replicated anywhere -- from villages to cities. "It is a good idea to install them by the beach for the fishing community, who currently use the beach as open toilet. Power can be drawn from the grid or a solar panel on top."

"I feel such toilets can be installed by MLAs and MPs in their constituencies using their development funds. That is why I have sent all of the details to the Prime Minister's Office; I hope this idea will gain traction, especially since Narendra Modi has spoken of the need to have toilets in order to safeguard the dignity of women," he adds.

Menon describes what he has designed as something akin to the Ambassador cars of yore that were famously easy to repair. "There is no rocket science involved in my design; it is quite simple. Unlike more complex designs like the e-toilets, my toilets have no GPS or automatic flushes. Any plumber can repair it in case of a problem. I was just following what Mahatma Gandhi said: 'To be the change you want to see in the world'."

Image: Suresh Menon with his toilets.

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Shobha Warrier/