New Delhi: It took the mysterious death of two teenage girls for the Badaun village in northern India to get toilets.
The gruesome sight in May of two girls hanging from a mango tree by their scarves triggered national outrage over the dangers women face while defecating in open fields. While the cause of death is disputed by their parents, the 113 pink and blue outhouses built after the tragedy alleviate the need for women to walk to nearby farms to relieve themselves.
“In my old age, it’s a blessing from God to have a latrine nearby to save me from the fields,” Rekha Devi said while wrapped in a shawl on a chilly December evening, adding that she couldn’t remember what year she was born. “We are poor and so very cold in our own homes, with nothing more than a few blankets and each other to keep us warm.”
The case shows both the challenges and possibilities of modernizing rural India, where most people live on less than $2 per day and half don’t have toilets. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said the nation “should feel shame” when women defecate in the open and plans to spend about $30 billion to ensure most Indians have toilets by 2019.
“If it takes a crisis and the death of two young girls to get the systems to work, then this needs to be a wake up call,” said Yamini Aiyar, director of Accountability Initiative, a New Delhi-based policy research group that monitors progress of the government’s social welfare programmes. “Of course, we are glad something good has come of this horrible ordeal, but it never should’ve come to this in the first place.”
‘Suggestive of rape’
Badaun sits about 160 miles east of New Delhi, India’s capital, on plains that lay south of the Himalayan mountain range. Most families make a living by working on farms that mostly grow wheat and mint.
On a steamy morning last May, the girls were found hanging from a tree by their red and green scarves. About 100 villagers surrounded the bodies out of concern that local police would try to cover up what was thought to be a horrific crime against the teenagers, who were 14 and 16.
Sohan Lal, the father of one victim and uncle of another, accused a neighbour, Pappu Yadav, of raping and murdering the girls. An initial autopsy said the condition of the girls was “suggestive of rape.”
Yadav, who was detained by police in May, has since been released. The 20-year-old was never charged with a crime and is no longer living in the village. He couldn’t be contacted. His father, Bire Yadav, said his son is grateful that he was released and is now working in a nearby village.
Case of suicide
The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) said last month that the girls lied to their parents about leaving to go defecate and instead met up with Yadav. Investigators said the older victim spoke to Yadav on the phone about 400 times and they had developed a physical relationship.
Moreover, CBI dismissed the autopsy results saying it was conducted by an under-qualified physician with unconventional tools under insufficient light. The bodies, buried under a riverbed during the dry season, are now under water and haven’t been exhumed.
“Based on around 40 scientific reports, CBI has concluded that the two minor girls in the Badaun case had not been raped and murdered, as had been alleged,” Kanchan Prasad, a spokeswoman for the organization, said in a text message. “The investigation has concluded that it’s a case of suicide.”
Lal, a farmer, sees a conspiracy in the CBI’s findings.
“There was proof of what happened, but now it’s gone?” he said outside his brick shack after dropping a bundle of straw next to a make-shift shelter for three police officers watching over his property. “There’s nothing happening from my calls for help. I just keep screaming.”
After the girls died, Bindeshwar Pathak’s Sulabh International promised to build 300 toilets in the village. The organization has also taught men the importance of having women use the latrines.
“They keep us warm and our women safe, especially at night,” Azipal Sharma, 35, said last week in Badaun on a day when temperatures dipped near freezing. “Only those people who don’t have toilets still go outside.”
Only a small number of the 300 families in Badaun were using toilets before the rape story spread across India. That’s the case across the country, where many toilets built by the government or private enterprises sit unused because villagers find it unclean to go indoors due to a lack of education or cultural reasons.
Families in Badaun are mostly using the toilets because women fear rape, even if the Lal family’s version of the hangings isn’t true, said Neeraj Jain, chief executive for WaterAid in India.
“Behaviour change can be achieved in many different ways, including fear which is what you’re seeing in a place like Badaun,” Jain said in an interview in New Delhi. “But fear has a low shelf-life. What’s more important is for people to internalize the importance of sanitation from a broader well-being perspective.”
Badaun’s villagers live close to one another, often sharing walls with neighbours in small structures with no more than two rooms. Just outside, children play next to cows near enclosed latrines with aluminum doors that lock from the inside and out.
Each of the Rs.42,000 outhouses have ceramic-tiled floors with a porcelain squat toilet. Two tanks convert the excrement into fertilizer.
For Lal, the latrine is a constant reminder of the loss of his daughter and niece.
“What I want is justice, I want to see him hanged—I don’t want this toilet,” Lal said, sitting beside his son in front of the sky blue latrine. “Yes, I use it. But I’m forced to think of her every time I open the door.” Bloomberg