Sanitation education | Milaap

Sanitation education

Written by our fellow, Kurt Herzog who is working closely with our field partner GUARDIAN & GMF in Trichy, Tamil Nadu. “So this guy has four kids,” I say to the class, “and they each get sick once a month.” I was standing, for the third time in two weeks, facing a group of beaming school children intently listening to the speech that I hadn’t had a chance to prepare. Minutes before the impromptu school visit began, I had been snaking through the streets of a village in Musiri, the passenger on a Guardian staff member’s Honda Hero.“Each visit to the hospital costs 250 Rs., which means that he spends how much on medical expenses?” I had just left the house of a woman who had recently installed a water connection with a loan from Guardian, the first microfinancing institution in the world to offer loans solely for sanitation and water projects. Before we stopped by the school, I had been headed to a different village to meet with the owner of a toilet constructed with the help of a Guardian loan.  The water-connection borrower told me that last month her two children each visited the doctor once, which cost about 200 to 300 Rs. per visit.

School 2 visit

My second school visit

“This man has a monthly income of…” What was the average income in this village? I had no idea. A misstep step here and I might ruin the credibility of the problem. I remembered the ladies that I had spoken with few days prior, who had received loans to start poultry farms, had husbands who were truck drivers. This job seemed like a safe bet. I ask the teacher for a truck driver’s income.“So the man works as a driver, and he makes 10,000 Rs. a month.” I write 10,000 on the board. I learned during impromptu speech number two that the chalkboard is actually a pressure-relief valve from the unwavering gazes of the kids. I write 4 x 250, and the kids blurt out, “a thousand!” I write 10,000 minus 1,000, but the students are quiet. The teacher still needs to translate; I can’t even break the language barrier with numbers.“And this guy doesn’t have a toilet.” Finally, the crux of the problem. I then ask the kids what his net annual income is before introducing scenario #2, in which the same man builds a toilet. The toilet costs 10,000 Rs., which is the amount of the loan available through Guardian, although the two people that I visit later that day spent 12,000 Rs. and 15,000 Rs. on theirs.

Bathroom and field

A 15,000 Rs. bathroom built with Guardian loan (left) The bathroom for everybody else (right)

“After the man builds a toilet, his kids get sick half as often.” As I write on the board, I realize that the first year, the man is better off not building the toilet. He spends 10,000 Rs. to build the toilet, and only saves 6,000 Rs. on medical expenses: a 4,000 Rs. loss. In the second year, though, he again saves 6,000 Rs. on medical expenses, but doesn’t have to pay to build another toilet. At the end of the second year, when you factor in the medical expenses and the cost of the toilet, when the man builds the toilet his net income is 2,000 Rs. higher than when he does not.I finish the problem and thank the teacher. To reach the door I have to wade through a sea of outstretched arms, shaking hands with my right hand and signing notebooks with my left. A curious boy presses a probing index finger into my forearm, then holds up the digit and stares at it, as if waiting for it to dissolve or change colors. As I hop back on the Honda and wave goodbye, I wonder if the students have already forgotten the toilet problem, if their excitement rendered them incapable of remembering anything save my pale skin and light hair.In all likelihood, the toilet problem won’t result in the construction of any new toilets, as much as I like to imagine the students running home to their parents and demanding that they build one. But teaching the next generation of Indians to start talking about toilets, as well as educating them about the economic and health benefits of adequate sanitation, are the first steps to solving the real toilet problem: the 60% of Indians that don’t have access to a toilet, and the 6.4% of GDP* that India loses every year from poor sanitation.

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