On the morning of 5 November, Seema Patel woke up with nervous anticipation, wore her best sari and set off from her parents’ house in Pipariya town in Hoshangabad to the village of Shahpur in Betul district of Madhya Pradesh about 100 km away. When she arrived with her family at the Panchayat Bhavan, she found more than 50 people gathered to welcome her. At the head of the crowd, looking a little bashful but wearing a big smile, and holding a garland, stood Mohan Patel. People cheered and prayers were offered, after which the couple posed stiffly for photographs. There was band, baaja and baaraat, redolent of their wedding day five years ago. But unlike then, this event was conducted under the watchful eye of the panchayat, the district collector, representatives of the local family counselling centre, and members of the press. Eventually, the couple, estranged for the last year and a half, was escorted home in a car lent by the police thana. On reaching her marital home, she was shepherded straight away to the backyard to inspect the family’s newly constructed toilet, bedecked for the occasion. And that is how Seema Patel began her life anew.
Ten days later, she is getting used to the changed routine but still taken aback by her newfound fame. The legend of the crusading bride and young mother, who protested against going out to relieve herself when her husband couldn’t afford to build a toilet, and then won a victory when he wooed her back by constructing one, has been spreading. It also dovetailed with the Government’s Swachh Bharat Mission and Seema has been appointed Betul’s Swachhata Doot (cleanliness ambassador) by the district collector. “I was looking to improve the home and not to be famous. I had to be brave and fight really hard for this,” says the 21-year-old matter-of-factly.
The two years she spent with Mohan before walking out had been difficult. He kept putting off her demand for a toilet, and when she would go out in the open near the railway track everyday, there was the fear of falling prey to drunkards, louts and gamblers passing by. “On the one hand, I was expected to do ghoonghat, and on the other, I would go out in the open. What sense does that make?” she says.
The public unspooling of the story began at the end of September, when Rajani Gaikwad, who works with the district police’s family counselling centre at Shahpur, received a most unusual complaint—from an aggrieved young man abandoned by his wife. In the period of separation, their daughter Drishti, who is now one year old, was born. The father asserted his right to live with his daughter, but Seema was resolute: no reunion without a toilet.
When Gaikwad, a woman whose commanding voice is difficult to ignore, heard the story she was stupefied. Wife-beating, alcoholism, difficult in-laws, these were issues she was used to dealing with, but not anything like this. She roped in the panchayat, which offered Rs 12,000, and instructed the family to start building a toilet within a month. The news began to percolate to all corners of the state, and there were visitors dropping in daily to see how the toilet construction was proceeding. As the deadline for the completion loomed and the case became the talk of the town, Gaikwad started getting anxious. “What if Seema, too used to the comforts of living with her parents, refused to come home? It was a 50-50 chance,” she says.
Mohan Patel meets us in the afternoon on the outskirts of Shahpur, where he is employed on a monthly salary of Rs 4,000 as a manager at a bike showroom. A lanky youth with a pleasing manner, he is dressed in a yellow shirt that compliments his wife’s sunglow-coloured sari. He pronounces they are more in love than ever and ready for a fresh start. They have painted their house in cheery shades of blue, green and yellow for Diwali. On one side is an old toilet which was constructed long ago by his grandfather, but has not been functional. The family did not qualify for the Government’s scheme as they are not below the poverty line. His sister Priya, who is married and lives some distance away, has two toilets in her home and yet she often heads out in the evenings with the rest of the women in the family to relieve herself in the open. “We stay home all day, there is no place for us to go, and this gives us a chance to go out. I don’t understand the big deal. But if Seema was too scared to go out, then she is right to have been stubborn about it.”
Seema’s case has started causing ripples in the district. Dnyaneshwar Patil, the collector at Betul says that 4,000 toilets were constructed till October when the case first started getting coverage and the number is currently 11,000. The district’s target for the year at 50,000, which seemed unachievable, seems less so now. “There is no lack of supply on our part, but this incident has created a demand for toilets, as more women, inspired by Seema, are rethinking their attitudes and coming forward. She has created a movement.”
The first reported case in India of a bride walking out of her husband’s home because it had no toilet is also from Betul district. A couple of hours away from Shahpur, Anita Narre, lives in Jheetudhana, a small village of Adivasis, cut off from the nearest town of Chicholi by a considerable distance. A college graduate and the daughter of a school teacher, her marriage with Shivram was fixed in 2011 over the course of a single meeting when his family visited hers. A month later on reaching her husband’s home after the marriage, she found no toilet there. She was expected to walk nearly 2 km to find an open stretch of land. The very next day after her wedding, Anita went back to her parents’ home, giving her husband an ultimatum. He complied, enlisted the help of the panchayat, and she was back in a fortnight. Her rebellion inspired a campaign. She was turned into a national role model and made the district ambassador for sanitation. She was bestowed a cash reward of Rs 5 lakh by the sanitation NGO, Sulabh International, which was used by the family to buy a plot of land. According to the district administration, in the village of 300 households there were only 50 toilets before her, but soon there was one in nearly every house.
Dusk is setting in, and a power cut has plunged the village into darkness, when we arrive. Anita, Shivram and their two daughters sit outside their modest hutment. The village seems to have been left out from the development evident in other parts of the district. Shivram alternates between being a manual labourer and a temporary teacher in a school. He is studying for his final year of graduation. “We had no sisters so we did not know how difficult it is for women,” says Shivram. “I was shocked at first that she could dare to take a step like this, but when she told me of the shame and embarrassment she felt and the risk, I supported her even though everyone advised me not to.” She sounds a little bitter that her fame, like a brief rain shower, has come and gone. “I wish I could have done more as an ambassador for sanitation, but after receiving all those honours, I have been forsaken.” The district administration says they have not forgotten her, but their role was to ensure that she gets the toilet she demanded.
Anita may have been the first runaway wife, but the most visible face of this campaign has been Priyanka Bharti of Maharajganj district in Uttar Pradesh, who in 2012, walked out in her first week of marriage. Soon after, she appeared along with Vidya Balan in the Total Sanitation Campaign. Priyanka Rai from Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh stayed for a month before walking out. Both of them continue to work as sanitation activists. The same year, the Government launched its ‘No Toilet, No Bride’ campaign, when Jairam Ramesh, then Minister for Rural Development, urged families to not just match horoscopes, but to ensure there is a toilet in the groom’s house. A version of this was adapted by the Madhya Pradesh government under the Mukhyamantri Kanyadan Yojna, where grooms would be eligible for the scheme only after they submitted photographic proof of toilets in their homes, or an affidavit to build one within a month of the marriage.
Last year, six brides of Khesiya village of Kushinagar, staged a revolt demanding toilets. In Maharashtra this year, Chaitali Galakhe asked her family to gift her a toilet as dowry when she discovered there was no provision in her in-laws home, while Sangita Awhale, also from Maharashtra, sold her mangasutra to build a toilet. Savita Devi of Dewas in Madhya Pradesh filed a divorce case, which was resolved when authorities stepped in and helped build one.
In all these cases, there were some common factors: the women were partly educated, they had toilets in their parents’ homes, and most crucially perhaps, they had the support of their families. “To leave the marital home is an acutely difficult decision to make for women in rural India. It invites censure on both families from society,” says Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International, which has helped generate the news headlines for these cases. “The fact that they’re taking this step shows just how difficult is their plight. They have to go out under the cover of darkness. Apart from the risk of diseases, snakes and scorpions, there is the threat of harassment from men.” He says more women like Seema Patel must step forward to achieve the target of making the country open-defecation free by 2019 under the Swachh Bharat Mission. This week, 19 November, is World Toilet Day. Organisations that work in sanitation will be recognising the role played by these women whose cases have been widely reported. There may be more that never come to light.
The case of Kushinagar district where Priyanka Rai and Priyanka Bharti have worked extensively on the ground, and where six brides stood up for their rights, demonstrates that role models can play an effective role in raising community awareness. Seema Patel could stand up in Betul because there was Anita Narre who had shown that it was possible.
But there may be more here than just that. Mayanka Bhargava, editor of Rashtriya Janadesh, a local newspaper that broke Seema’s story, says that there is a history of women’s activism in this area. Last year, women of Multai, a tehsil that falls under Betul, formed a volunteer group to take on the liquor menace and went about thrashing the liquor mafia with the help of the local police. Dressed in white saris, they quixotically named themselves the Safed Gang, inspired by the famous Gulabi Gang of Uttar Pradesh. “Women here have high tolerance, but when they rise up, there is no stopping them,” he says.
In Seema’s household, under all the bonhomie, there is perceptible tension. The elder in-laws are worried that she will once more try to break out of her domestic confines. “What if all this attention turns her head? What if she refuses to do any work at home?” asks the woman who reunited the couple. When Seema says she wants to spur more women to do what she did, Gaikwad chastises her: “You’ve done enough. You’ve got your toilet. It’s time to sit quietly at home and take care of everyone.” Surely, this young woman who had the strength to rebel for nearly two years will not pay heed.