When I paddled to meet Kanpur’s toilet ladies!

Ganges SUP

It’s 5 AM, freezing cold and foggy outside and we don’t need to launch our paddle board till 8 AM. I am however awake to carry out my daily ablutions. I try to use the cover of darkness and before our camp is surrounded by a big crowd of onlookers.

It is mid-day and we have stopped for lunch on a flat sand bar – no trees, no cover and a lot of fishermen around. I am so annoyed as I really need to use the toilet (in this case, find a quiet corner).

This has been a part of my daily routine ever since we embarked on GangesSUP in early October. I shudder to think how I would have managed had the banks and campsites been heavily populated.

GangesSUP is the world’s first ever source-to-sea descent of the River Ganga by stand-up paddleboard. We aim to use adventure to create awareness and promote the importance of clean water as the means for health and well-being.

A big focus of our expedition is to interact with the men, women and children we meet on our journey and learn more about the issues they face with open defecation.

Ganges SUP team interacting team with kids in Kanpur. Photo: Ganges SUP
Ganges SUP team interacting team with kids in Kanpur. Photo: Ganges SUP

During the journey, our team stopped over at WaterAid India project areas along Ganga like Shyamal Das Basti, Sarsaiyya Ghat and Rakhi Mandi slum in Kanpur and Harpur Saidabad in Bihar and interacted with local communities to learn how WaterAid India’s work is helping reduce pollution along the banks of the river.

Shilpika at Rakhi Mandi slum in Kanpur. Photo: Ganges SUP
Shilpika at Rakhi Mandi slum in Kanpur. Photo: Ganges SUP

Traveling only via the river and camping each night by river banks and away from civilisation has left even our team with no choice but to practice open defecation – we try to be as responsible as possible but obviously it’s far from ideal.

Before however I wail in any self-pity, I remind myself that this is something I am subjecting myself out of choice- something I am lucky not to have to deal with normally. Lack of access to toilets affect us all, but the worst affected are our women – resorting to open defecation makes them vulnerable to harassment, compromises their dignity and even causes severe health issues.

Meeting Kalavatiji and Seemaji from WaterAid India’s local partner Shramik Bharti in Kanpur was not only a huge source of inspiration but also a powerful example of what relentless and fearless ground level activism from women can achieve. In a city like Kanpur where there is hardly any space to breathe, one can imagine how privacy is a luxury for the less privileged, especially in toilet usage for women.

Kalvati played a key role in the construction of a 55 seat toilet in her community. Photo: WaterAid/Poulomi Basu
Kalvati played a key role in the construction of a 55 seat toilet in her community. Photo: WaterAid/Poulomi Basu

Kalvatiji’s slight frame and kind mannerisms don’t always give away her steely resolve to help educate and rally communities (especially the women) to demand and build toilets. Twenty-five years ago, Kalvatiji played a key role in the construction of a 55 seat toilet in her community. Inspired by the change it brought in the quality of life in her surroundings, she now works with other communities to enable them to do the same, going as far as to construct customised toilets for the less able and the blind.

Seema from WaterAid India partner in Kanpur, Shramik Bharti. Photo: Ganges SUP
Seema from WaterAid India partner in Kanpur, Shramik Bharti. Photo: Ganges SUP

In contrast, Seemaji is a fireball of energy, of drive and enthusiasm. From knowing almost everyone in the communities she works with to being known by the local administration and government, her dynamism as a lifelong activist for women’s rights is absolutely inspirational.

Meeting these women was not only humbling but really offered an eye opening insight into the power of grassroots level activism and the importance of getting one’s hands dirty i.e. working closely with communities to improve hygiene and sanitation.

In a way it made me question whether our methodology of ‘creating awareness’ for safe water is enough? At the very least, I certainly hope it complements the immense efforts of people like Kalavatiji and Seemaji.

Support WaterAid India’s efforts to reduce the sewage burden on River Ganga by donating money for this project here

Shilpika Gautam is Team Lead at Ganges SUP.

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