Every time Pratima Joshi lands up at a government office to get approvals for yet another round of toilet construction in urban slums, she is asked, “Why are you doing this? Do you want to stand for elections? Does this earn you big money? Why waste your time walking about in the sun in these filthy slums?”
She usually has no reply.
The Pune-based architect and co-founder of the NGO Shelter Associates (SA) certainly has no political aspirations. She also doesn’t earn much out of the whole activity – toilets are built in partnership with residents and corporate houses who donate for the cause.
And the mother of two definitely has better things to do than walk about in the narrow lanes of urban jhuggis, where she is greeted with the calls of, “Sandaas-wali ayee hain (the toilet woman is here),” said affectionately, of course.
Once in a while, Pratima explains her motives: “I do it so that girls don’t have to go out at night to relieve themselves in the dark in open areas. I do it so that families don’t have to queue up every morning outside dirty community toilets, where the ratio is one toilet to a hundred people anyway. I do it so that lesser women contract urinary tract infections (UTI). I do it so that slum dwellers live with dignity and keep their homes clean.”
Sometimes new bureaucrats and ministers are skeptical. But once they realise this 54-year-old benevolent looking woman means what she says – and that they will get to do the ribbon-cutting and earn the goodwill (and votes) of the slumdwellers – they usually acquiesce.
“Working with the government has developed my patience, perseverance and sense of humour,” the ‘toilet evangelist’ says with a slow sardonic smile.
Born in Nagpur and brought up in Chennai, Pratima studied at the School of Architectural Planning at Anna University. Inheriting an ear for music from her singer mother, she also learnt Hindustani light vocals and was often to be heard on Pune radio in her younger days.
Her father, a metallurgist, had a stable business and encouraged her to go to Bartlett School of Architecture, University College of London, for her higher education. “London changed my perspective. I became very clear that I would work in the development space after returning to India,” says Pratima.
She was 24 when she married an engineer with his own consultancy. They went on to have two children, a son who now works in Canada and a daughter who is a veterinarian surgeon in Pune.
After studying rural and urban development from Centre for Development Studies, Pratima got together with two other architects and founded her NGO in 1993.
In these 25 years, her NGO has built over 12,000 household toilets working with six cities in Maharashtra, from Sangli to Pune. In areas such as Pimpri, they have managed to construct household toilets for 1,700 out of 2,400 homes, reducing the load on the community toilets to one toilet per 30 persons.
Their model involves collection of data using GIS software, mobilization of community, and implementing a cost-sharing model – the government is convinced to invest in sewers, drainage or septic tanks; corporate houses are invited to invest in their social responsibility, and the slum owners select the tiles and do the construction at their own expense.
This often leads to healthy competition among them to make ‘fancy’ bathrooms or even upgrade the entire home. Some of them live in one-room tenements with barely a few feet to spare around a drain – they improvise by creating Indian-style toilets in the ground and covering them with a plank of wood to stand on and bathe later.
“The most heartening thing for me is to hear women tell me they now eat to their hearts’ content at nighttime,” says Pratima, “they are not worried any longer about going to the toilet in open areas the dark.”
Women can change sanitary napkins more often too, and UTI rates always fall drastically once slums get household toilets.
“The urban poor lead such wretched lives, with no privacy or resources,” says Pratima, who conducts workshops to exhort women to come together and demand amenities from the government as one voice.
Pratima has a down-to-earth demeanour and a sense of peace that has been developed after over three decades of daily meditation. Having won several accolades across different forums hasn’t gone to her head.
On the contrary, she believes there is still much more to be done. “Work with the highest intention,” she says. The results will take care of themselves.
First published in the March 2018 issue of eShe magazine. Read it for free here.