Being an academic activist I have been visiting rural areas with a perspective for the last thirty years and writing about the conditions of the rural populace. While reporting about the transformative process in rural areas and the people, whether it is sanitation, livelihood, water supply, garbage, or cleaning the streets, wherever people’s consciousness has changed, there is tremendous change. The changes and transformations are not driven by the external agencies but by the communities themselves, with someone to ignite the spirit and consciousness. When I was younger, Sabapathy, a Gandhian came to my house and taught me to create a toilet without expenditure. He sensitised me to the need of toilets and in unequivocal terms he explained the link between cleanliness and development. He brought the argument in a convincing way and I was deeply impressed and influenced. But I was wondering how do we find money for that. It was a big question.
Not only did he explain the importance of toilets but also that toilets could be created for zero cost. It puzzled me. He took me to his house then. There was a toilet made out of coconut plantation waste! From our coconut plantation, we have coconut leaves. Our farm house is fenced with different types of trees and from the trees, a few poles can be created. With the above two a small fully fenced natural toilet can be created. In the toilet, a small spade and a packet of water have to be provided. When anyone goes with the spade, a pit can be chosen where the excreta can be put. He had created a model structure in his house. By following that model, we, too, created such facility in our house. That toilet was in use till we constructed a new house. This is the practice we have developed and popularised. Every house in the locality has toilets and the entire arrangement could be shifted from one place to another. Sabapathy played an important role in sensitising school children. Such toilets were created by us, not by our elders. Our parents also followed us as they need not walk a kilometer every day to attend to nature’s calls.
Later he asked us to clean the streets surroundings of our houses. During those days he advocated that every house should have a small pit to dump wastes collected from the house. We had milch animals and bullocks for our farm operations. All wastes have been collected and dumped in the pit created for it. We got huge quantity of compost manure we got from this process for our farmlands. Our parents were also happy. He instilled in us the value of the manual labour. It was not made out of cement. It was made out of the waste material available to us. Sabapathy was a transformed individual and he was a selfless person. Every child loved him. Because of his continuous work with children, he created a culture of sanitation. Hence, we, as young boys and girls, created toilets. This was my sole such experience in youth.
Recently I went to a village to document the works of Sri Aurobindo society in a few villages in Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu as it worked for the transformation of rural areas through the involvement of communities. The document was ultimately published in Delhi titled “Integral Rural Development” and brought a new thesis in rural transformation and development. Two individuals have worked with the community by transforming the consciousness of people. They sensitised school children first and then moved towards their parents and eventually through youth. They have largely touched upon all segments of the village community. Majority of the people in the village are Dalits. It is a neat and clean village after constructing toilets and maintaining them. The new thesis they have developed based on their experience in the village is that villages are integral organic units functioning in their own pattern and they tend to change only when changes happen in the consciousness. Government wants to develop villages sectorally by implementing the schemes and programmes through the departments. They are not touching the consciousness of the people. In many villages government constructed toilets for the poor but they are not being used. But in this village, all schemes have been availed of consciously. Hence, a culture has been created first. Rest of the things are the works of people. First, by working with children, they have demonstrated the impact of the raising consciousness of children to their parents and as a result parents started noticing the transformation in their children’s attitude, behavior, and performance. The parents followed their children. As a result, the entire village has been sensitised and transformed.
We thus infer that transformational leaders on the ground is the need of the hour. What we need to do is not construct toilets but create a toilet culture. This is possible only through transformational leaders. Now we have panchayat presidents in the Panchayati Raj system and they are all acting as political leaders, not as transformational leaders because they lack training. Proper sanitary condition could be created in the rural areas by changing the attitude and behavior of the people. To perform the above, all training institutions in the rural development department have to be changed into a new leadership school to conduct leadership training programmes for the elected local body leaders.
(Dr.G.Palanithurai is Professor and Rajiv Gandhi Chair for Panchayati Raj Studies at Department of Political Science and Development Administration, Gandhigram Rural Institute. Views are strictly personal.)