India Interior

Towards a barrier-free life

Swapna Majumdar | Updated on June 28, 2019 Published on June 28, 2019

How tweaking a design helped leprosy patients in Rourkela access community toilets

After hobbling to the community toilet some 50 metres from her mud house, 70-year-old Surya Mahe had to sit down on the ground before dragging herself inside. She was scared that if she didn’t do so, she would slip and fall. Her 80-year-old neighbour, Lalita Pradhan, had an equally tough time. Though she managed to reach the toilet with the help of her crutches, the steep incline meant she had to wait for someone to take her inside.

Sometimes, it was so hard that both these leprosy-affected women didn’t even try on their own.

But ever since the slope was lowered and anti-skid tiles and railings were put alongside the ramp, life has become much easier. They no longer have to wait for help to arrive.

It’s not just Mahe and Pradhan who now have easy access to basic sanitation and hygiene. The barrier-free community toilet has given a new lease of life to all the residents of the Leprosy Colony in Rourkela, Odisha. “I have cataract in both eyes and can’t see very well. My fingers and toes have shortened due to leprosy, so I can’t walk straight. It was difficult for me to use the new community toilet. I preferred to use the old one although it is dilapidated and lacks water facility. But now, the new toilet has hand rails and user-friendly water taps. At last, it is in accordance with our needs.Now, I lead a more hygienic and healthier life,” says 76-year-old Magi Adivasi.

Changing mindsets

The improved community toilet has triggered a change in the lives of this community, especially women. Forced out with their leprosy-affected families from their villages in Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha and then settled down in Leprosy Colony in Rourkela’s Naya Basti, women have been the worst affected. For many, begging was the only option to keep the home fires burning in the absence of education and livelihood opportunities. However, since the maintenance of the community toilet was given by the government to women self-help groups, their incomes have increased and many have given up begging.

“I didn’t like to beg. I am affected by leprosy and no one was willing to give me a job. Now I have a better source of income. I have understood that I can give up begging and still give my children a better life,” says 45-year-old SHG member Ukia Majhi.

However, changing mindsets wasn’t easy. When the Centre for Urban and Regional Excellence (CURE), a not-for-profit working for community development, first met them in 2017, they were suspicious.

It took several meetings to convince the community that they were working in conjunction with the Rourkela Municipal Corporation (RMC) to improve their living conditions and empower them to lead independent, dignified lives.

“Our aim was to motivate the community to identify its problems and then come up with its solutions. But we needed to build a rapport first,” recalls Siddharth Pandey, associate director, CURE.

Several participatory activities were carried out to engage the community. It was only after the CURE team joined the community in cleaning the dirty, swampy area in the colony and later shared a meal jointly made by all of them that the ice was finally broken.

After the community identified livelihoods and sanitation as the pressing problems, meetings were held to discuss the solutions.

Residents pointed out that there were two community toilets. Majority of them, including the elderly, preferred to use the old run-down one because the new one had slippery tiles, no railing and taps and hence could not be used by leprosy-affected residents. Further, insufficient ventilation led to a foul smell in the toilets during the peak hours of use. This is why, although there was no special access for disabled people in the old bathroom and despite the lack of water facilities, they still chose it over the new one.

Based on feedback from the community, CURE designed renovations. Once approved by the residents, the changes were carried out. The RMC will be using this design to upgrade community toilets in four other leprosy colonies. “Until CURE told us, we didn’t realise that there were gaps in our design. These gaps, pointed out by the community, continued to exist as some of our staff were reluctant to go there because of the stigma attached to leprosy. We were going to demolish the old toilet. But now we will renovate it according to CURE design,” says Ashok Parida, executive engineer, RMC.

Livelihood options

It was while exploring sanitation solutions and designing a barrier-free toilet that livelihood options were also discussed. The women SHGs took the lead and decided that mushroom, floriculture, and compost formation were best suited to them. The Krishi Vigyan Kendra, a district-level Farm Science Centre established by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, swung into action after an MoU was signed with CURE and training was given in all these activities.

According to Savitri Naik, president of Ma Tarini SHG, this helped the women improve their knowledge and income. “Our lives started changing for the better. As our incomes slowly rose, our confidence began to rise. People started buying our products and we lost the fear of stigma. When we received the best SHG award for maintenance of toilets and for best livelihoods in March this year from the RMC, it was a dream come true”.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi

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Published on June 28, 2019
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