Clean-up: Joe Madiath, executive director of Gram Vikas, has been ‘prickly’ about poverty since childhood despite his prosperous family background. Today, he can be credited with spearheading campaign (Joe Madiath, executive director of Gram Vikas, has been ‘prickly’ about poverty since childhood despite his prosperous family background. Today, he can be credited with spearheading campaign)

Clean-up: Joe Madiath, executive director of Gram Vikas, has been ‘prickly’ about poverty since childhood despite his prosperous family background. Today, he can be credited with spearheading campaign
(Joe Madiath, executive director of Gram Vikas, has been ‘prickly’ about poverty since childhood despite his prosperous family background. Today, he can be credited with spearheading campaign)

Joe Madiath | Toilet training and hygiene lessons for Orissa’s rural poor

Joe Madiath | Toilet training and hygiene lessons for Orissa’s rural poor

Standing in the middle court of India Habitat Centre, one of New Delhi’s best laid-out environment-intelligent spaces, Joe Madiath asks, with a mischievous grin, if we’d rather take him to a nearby toilet and photograph him there.

That wouldn’t be a bad idea because Madiath is the man who has helped build

Clean-up: Joe Madiath, executive director of Gram Vikas, has been ‘prickly’ about poverty since childhood despite his prosperous family background. Today, he can be credited with spearheading campaigns for development and sanitation in several backward villages.

And he has built them where it matters—27,000 toilets in 361 very poor and mainly tribal villages across 21 districts of Orissa. This year’s target is another 10,000.

The subject of toilets certainly gets 58-year old Madiath going. “Ever seen the stuff the government builds? A pan, a tank and three walls with a thatch roof, without a water source. By next monsoon, they’re either stinking, full, or being used as a shed. Why build a toilet for poor villagers you yourself can’t use? Aren’t they human beings? Or is it that poor people don’t deserve anything better?" he asks.

Madiath thinks they do.

The toilets in and around Mohuda village in Berhampur in the Ganjam district of Orissa, the headquarters of Madiath’s organization Gram Vikas, are well-constructed, clean and an integral part of homes.

Each comes with a bathing room and a permanent water line from overhead tanks. The cost of around Rs3,500 is shared between the family and Gram Vikas, the latter providing external materials such as door, cement, steel and the pan, and technical support.

“Low-cost doesn’t mean low-quality. These are subsidized toilets city people would love to use," says Madiath, executive director of Gram Vikas.

Statistics pertaining to toilets do not paint a very impressive picture of India. According to the 2001 census, 63.6% of India’s 192 million households do not have toilets (the proportion is 78% in rural areas and 26% in urban areas). And 54% of the households do not have any drainage facilities (66% in rural areas and 22% in urban ones).&ltlt;/p>

As compared to this, 68% of the households do not have a television (71% in rural areas and 36% in urban areas). That means that in rural areas, more households have televisions than toilets.

The situation is bad even in relatively richer states such as Haryana. According to a 2006 report in The Tribune, based on data released by Haryana’s Directorate of Census, 53% of the households in the state had a television while only 44.5% had toilets.

Another 2006 report based on census data, this one in the International Herald Tribune, said that 42% of the households in Tamil Nadu, long-considered one of the most progressive states in the country, had televisions and only 14.7% had toilets.

The government does have a programme, Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC), that it launched in 2001, with the aim of improving sanitary conditions in rural areas.

It gives poor rural families a subsidy of Rs500-Rs1,200 per toilet. That’s nowhere near what’s required especially because most rural areas lack proper water and drainage networks. The result is poorly built toilets that people just stop using after some time.

“When you build a home in the city," asks Madiath, “how much do you pay for using the city’s vast drainage and sewerage network? A small tax perhaps. Why must the poor pay 100%?" According to the Centre for Science and Environment, a non-governmental organization (NGO), New Delhi’s citizens pay 3% of the cost of distribution of water (through taxes) and Bangalore’s citizens pay 12%.

Madiath, born into a prosperous family of planters in Kerala, has always been prickly about poverty. He helped organize the labourers at the family rubber plantation against his father. Boarding school, the family hoped, would cure him. It didn’t.

Then, in 1971, as a bright, young student activist from Loyola College, Chennai, he decided to go to Orissa to help cyclone victims.

And his life changed.

Although it has made rapid strides in recent years by leveraging its mineral resources to attract companies to invest in the state, Orissa remains one of India’s poorest states.

According to a 2004-05 data, 86% of its population lives in rural areas; 47% earns Rs360 a month and 38% belongs to scheduled castes and tribes.

Madiath’s parents were devastated when he decided to stay back at Ganjam, struck by the terrible poverty around him, and hoping to expand the limited local economic options for the local people, through better working techniques and the use of technology. In 1979, he set up Gram Vikas .

“The NGO word had not been coined. As students, we were enamoured by technology, naively confident that if we could just pour down some technical support on one end of the tube, development would come out of the other," he says. As Madiath discovered, it didn’t.

Gram Vikas’ first experiment was a dairy, which floundered after a while because the tribals didn’t believe in milking cows. Biogas plants came after that and saw success.

“The forest was receding at an alarming rate, mainly because of indiscriminate felling. Most of the families had cows, the slurry was also good for agriculture, so we could make the omelettes without breaking the eggs," says Madiath.

The Deenabandhu biogas plant became a model for a government scheme that late prime minister Indira Gandhi launched. Gram Vikas has so far set up 55,000 biogas systems to provide inexpensive fuel for villagers.

But it was toilets that made Madiath a name to reckon with in some circles.

In 1992, Madiath came up with a Rural Health and Environment Programme after a Gram Vikas study found that more than 80% of the deaths in rural Orissa could be traced to water contaminated by faeces.

The programme seeks to harness all physical and human capital in a village, while demystifying construction techniques and enhancing local employment by teaching them brick making and other skills. Every family in a village must agree to be part of a programme before it can proceed and also must contribute equally in cash, materials, skill and labour to make a corpus fund. A committee of 50 people is formed to thrash out all issues and execute the work, with proportionate representation from women, and each community and tribe. That’s because if there’s even one family in the village defecating in the open or using the pond to wash or bathe, it contaminates the water and affects the health of all. The committee also has to bring everybody around if caste or community problems surface.

Gram Vikas has used the same approach to build roads, drainage systems, community halls and schools, under a complete village development programme called MANTRA. Whenever needed, politicians and government schemes have been tapped, to ease financial constraints. “Politicians are very people-savvy; it is the bureaucrats who are resistant to change. But we’re a democracy, so officials work when we put pressure or when we scrape or prostrate (ourselves before them)," he says.

The average contribution per family towards a permanent village corpus is Rs1,000, with more prosperous families sometimes giving more to make up for the less fortunate. The interest earned by this fund, typically around Rs1-2 lakh a year, is used for maintenance, issue soft loans for specific projects and help out the deserving if needed—basically to ensure that the village’s water and sanitation needs are met. There’s a stiff fine for open defecation or a dirty toilet. “In water and sanitation, the community approach leads to a win-win situation. You get the village to unite and that allows it to take up other development issues. Freed from the killing job of fetching water, women get their children immunized and send them to school and do other work," says Madiath.

Acknowledging Gram Vikas’ contribution to the popularization of the TSC, Orissa rural development secretary S.N. Tripathi says, “The job becomes much more difficult when you have to work with poor tribals who don’t even have a decent house. And Rs1,200 isn’t enough to build a proper toilet. Wherever Joe has taken it up, he has got success." Madiath admits the government’s TSC, which even awards villages that have improved their sanitation facilities, has fared better than any government scheme.

He adds that the real issue, however, has to do with sustainability and change in attitude towards sanitation.

“Every time one pan is put," he says, “one tick will be made on the TSC report card. India will achieve the UN sanitation goal in figures. The operation will be successful but the patient will be dead. Toilets are just one part of our essential campaign for dignity and inclusion." Secondly, he adds, even if the government meets its target, it is a success only in terms of fixed-point defecation. “What happens to the remaining 95% of the country which is used to open defecation?" he asks.

In much of North and North-West India, Madiath claims, villagers ritually drive in their Maruti cars to the fields to relieve themselves.

Nafisa Barot, executive director, Utthan, a voluntary organization working on issues related to water and sanitation in Gujarat, says that Madiath’s “singular contribution in the field is in working for the poor from the rights perspective, even while challenging the existing paradigms of development with innovative approaches and clearly demonstrated results."

According to her, Madiath has shown on a very large scale how best the government machinery can be engaged for the benefit of the people.

Among the many awards Gram Vikas has received are the World Habitat Award for 2002, the Tech Museum Award 2003, the Kyoto World Water Grand Prize for 2006 and the Skoll Awards for Social Entrepreneurship 2007.

“My effort is to create an enabling environment for sustainable development," says Madiath, “one that makes clear that poor people really do matter." He doesn’t want to bring his programme to the city slums “where many people (NGOs) are working." “Nobody is interested in poor tribals," says Madiath

Kumuda Bisoi of Samantarapur village in Puri, where one of the three ponds freed from bathing and washing was given over to women to grow fish, says her husband had initially grumbled that the women would soon “wear pants and men, bangles".

After the ponds made an income of Rs40,000 a year later, she says, he was smiling.

Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to Sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to