Story by Scott Harrison. India, January 1, 2008
Photos by Scott Harrison.
I never thought I’d be spending New Year's Eve looking at toilets. And I never thought I’d be asking my friends for money to build them. Like many things in my comfortable western life, toilets have always just been there for me. They were usually made of white porcelain, held about five gallons of clean water in their tanks, and were in rooms with doors I could lock.
Yet 2.5 billion people on our planet don’t know what any of that is like.
“Cover your face and expose your base,” Joe Madiath says darkly with a chuckle.
It’s New Year’s Eve and I’m in rural East India, talking about what else but toilets and open defecation. Orissa is India’s poorest state, and the 150-acre compound we are at is where Joe lives and works. It’s truly in the sticks - about four hours from the nearest city.
“It’s all about dignity,” Joe says. I nod my head fervently and agree, trying to process what I’ve just seen.
Joe is preaching about the right to basic sanitation that 2.5 billion people in the world currently go without. In layman’s terms, this means not having a toilet to use. Here in Orissa, squatting in open fields or forests is a daily reality for 99% of he people here. A staggering 94% also don’t have clean, safe water to drink. These injustices or indignities, as he calls them – have motivated his humanitarian work with the organization he founded called Gram Vikas for 25 years.
The last four days have felt like weeks. I left NY on the 26th on a 28-day charity: water trip to India, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Kenya & Tanzania. Singer Chan Marshall of Cat Power joined me, along with my videographer and old friend Matt Oliver.
We started out in Southern India, and spent 2 days in Bangalore meeting with humanitarian aid groups working in the slums. Similar to the African slums I’ve grown all too familiar with, the conditions here were unsurprisingly appalling.
Children walked barefoot over piles of human feces as small rivers of open waste ran only yards from cooking fires.
In one slum ironically named the “Flower Garden”, a child flew a makeshift kite of black plastic bags. It bobbed in and out of the slowly running sewage, coated in bile. The children however, seemed oblivious to the abhorrent conditions they’d inherited, grabbing our attention and cameras with wide smiles and giggles.
Both aid groups we visited brought clean water into slum houses, and funded household toilets. Both the water and toilets made a huge difference to the people we met there, replacing long walks for water and open defecation.
* * *joe madiath. new year's eve. orissa. From Bangalore, we flew to Bhubaneswar, and then drove 4 hours over bad roads to reach the Gram Vikas compound after midnight. We met Joe for the first time early at breakfast the next morning. He’s a gruff, bearded man about 5’ 7 that walks and talks with authority and purpose. He’s led a fascinating life, both as a student activist, and then champion of human dignity for Orissa’s rural poor through Gram Vikas for more than 25 years. He started young. When Joe was 11, he thought the workers at his father’s rubber plantation should stand up for their rights. He got them together, and helped them form a union. His dad shipped him off to boarding school, and Joe never returned home. He lives modestly with his wife Shirley on the edge of the compound in a house that he says nobody else wants to live in. After a few meals there, I saw what he meant. Sparsely decorated with Van Gogh posters and Indian artifacts, Shirley joked that it might fall down any moment. My first conversation a few weeks ago had left me eager to meet Joe. I’d called his cell phone from New York to apologize in advance for making him take us to see field projects on New Year’s Eve. It was as good a day as any for me to work, but I wanted to be respectful of his holiday celebrations. “If you fly all the way over here because you want to help our people, the least I can do is show you around,” he said. “Every day is a work day for us here.” Show us around he did. Ten and a half hours ahead of the year-end celebrations back home in New York City, we spent the holiday visiting rural villages in Orissa – villages that had never seen an MTV broadcast, a bottle of champagne, or lit a firecracker. Some were so poor that entire families of five lived on only 50 cents a day – $150 a year. We couldn’t have had a more inspiring way to usher in our New Year. Gram Vikas does many different things to lift people out of extreme poverty, and Joe doesn’t believe that just because people are poor, they should have poor quality solutions. Almost all Gram Vikas work begins with clean water and basic sanitation, which is the backbone of their work. So few of the communities here have access to clean and safe drinking water, and many that do have it, walk miles for that water. For example, before Gram Vikas helped the village of Khatuakuda get clean piped water, Manu used to wake up at 3 a.m. and spend four hours each morning fetching water. She’d then spend two hours in the evening doing the same. Imagine, six hours every day to fetch water. Joe’s solution to bring water to these rural villages is impressive and cost-effective. Gram Vikas will only work in a village if 100% of the community “buys in” to the work. The caste system makes this interesting, and some villages won’t let the dalits or “untouchables” anywhere near their water source. The whole village is out of luck until they change their rules, and Joe introduced me to an “untouchable” who was actually elected head of the water committee by the village. The 100% buy in has taken some villages as long as a decade, but most often only a few months, as many desperately want Joe’s help. The help comes at a price, as community members must subsidize development costs, and provide the labor for the project. Gram Vikas clean water solutions for the villages look like this: 1. A well is drilled or hand dug – depending on the depth of the water table. Some wells are as deep as 800 feet, others only 100. 2. An appropriate water pump and transformer is installed, and a connection to electricity is made. (sometimes lines have to be run great distances) 3. A concrete water tower is built, housing a storage tank large enough to provide 35-40 liters per person at any given time. 4. Pipes are laid and the water flows by gravity to the individual homes. Each house is provided with three taps: one in the kitchen, one in the toilet and one in the bathing room. (more on this later). What was amazing to the three of us was that, with the community’s 30% contribution, the whole system can be built for only $14,000. A typical water system benefits 500 people - a cost of about $30 a person. Joe has identified 91 villages that are in need of clean water, and asked for our help funding 10 of them. I’d like to do even more.
- Scott Harrison