Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Will You Spend Rs.30 a Day to Use the Toilet?

Can a person who earns Rs. 60 a day to support a family of 6 afford Rs. 30 a day for using the toilet?

These seemingly absurd questions are everyday struggles for the residents of Jagdamba camp. Lack of a sewer system in this slum settlement makes it impossible for individual homes to have toilets, rendering the residents totally dependent on a public toilet run by the Municipal Corporporation of Delhi (MCD). The MCD sub-contracts the operation and maintenance of this toilet to an NGO.

The contractor (NGO) demanded Re.1 per person every time anyone used the toilet. Even small children, who need to use the toilet more frequently, were required to pay Re.1 every time. The prohibitive cost of this facility left most people with little option but to defecate openly, which became a health concern in the area. Asma, a slum resident, says, “Bachchon se kehta tha paise do nahi to maroonga. Dar ke bachche jate bhi nahi the. ” (He used to threaten to beat the children if they didn’t pay. The kids refused to go to the toilet out of fear).

When the camp’s Mahila Mandal (women’s self help group) approached SNS with these issues, SNS volunteers used the Delhi RTI Act to ask for a copy of the contract awarded by MCD for the operation of the toilet. They also sought information regarding the penalty to be imposed on the contractor for violating the terms of the contract in addition to asking the name and designation of MCD officials responsible for ensuring proper functioning of the toilet.

The information obtained in response to the RTI application clearly stated that as per the contract signed between the MCD and the contractor, children below 12 years of age are to avail the facility free of cost, and the toilet is to be maintained by the NGO on a no-profit no-loss basis.

This information was publicised among residents of the camp and published in SNS’s newsletter Apna Panna, causing uproar. People were furious to know that for over ten years, they had been cheated into paying for the use of the toilet by children below 12 years; and that the non-governmental agency which was supposed to run the facility as service to society had been earning profits of about Rs.50,000 a month!

Empowered with this information, residents approached the MCD Slum department which is responsible for the functioning of MCD toilets in slums and registered a complaint. The community’s pressure resulted in the contract being cancelled and given to another NGO which is now running the toilet properly. Residents, particularly members of the Mahila Mandal, are also insisting that the NGO display the terms of the contract on a board outside the toilet so that no one can be fooled again into paying more for the use of this essential service.

Armed with information about their rights, people are not only better prepared but also more willing to stand up to defend them. Sabina, another resident, exemplifies this change, “Pehle aise mein hum dar jaate the, chup ho jate the. Par ab jab jankari ho gayi hai to hum bhi lad jate hain.” (Earlier we used to get intimidated and keep quiet. But now that we have information, we can also stand up for ourselves and put up a fight).

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