Meet Kalavati, The Mason With A Mission To Build Toilets In Her Village

Kalavati, a 50 year old passionate woman mason went house-to-house, collected funds and constructed toilets in her village all by herself. This is her story of how her efforts brought change and improved lives in the households of Uttar Pradesh.

It was early morning and the rain was coming down heavily. Braving the chilly winds and the steady downpour, Kalavati Devi, 55, a resident of Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, stepped out of her home. With a brisk pace, she set out for her destination that was two bus rides and a five kilometre walk away.

Kalavati is a mason and she is on a mission – to build toilets across all slums and lower income neighbourhoods in her city.

Kalavati woman changemaker

With a hint of determination in her eyes, Kalavati Devi hopes to get toilets made in each and every household. “By constructing toilets I am not only ensuring a clean environment but also saving the dignity of women and girls,” she says. (Credit: Isabelle Rose Neill)

At present, the crowded Rakhi Mandi shanty is her worksite. Till around two years ago, there was not even a single toilet in the vicinity – not in homes, not in the community. Drains overflowing with sewage and faeces created highly unsanitary living conditions. Open defecation was the norm and girls and women, in particular, were extremely vulnerable to ill-health, harassment and even violent assaults. In fact, a year back, a 50-year-old woman had been raped while she had gone to relieve herself. Resorting to extreme brutality, the rapists had beaten her so badly that she ended up losing her voice. Her teenage daughter was so horrified that she left her mother to live with her married sister in another locality. Unfortunately, the incident was never reported.

Taking into account the dismal situation prevailing in Rakhi Mandi, Shramik Bharti, a local non government organisation that works on sanitation issues, decided to get toilets constructed in the area with the support of WaterAid, a UK-based charity. That is how Kalavati landed up working in the neighbourhood. In fact, the hardworking, middle-aged, mother of two married girls has had a long association with Shramik Bharti, as her husband used to work as a floor cutter with them.

However, Kalavati was not always the confident construction worker that she is today. Hailing from Sitapur, one of India’s most backward districts, she came to Kanpur around 40 years back, as the 14-year-old bride of an 18-year-old Jairaj Singh. Being a child bride she never had the opportunity to go to school and yet she managed to run her home efficiently and bring up her two children. Times were always hard but she always had Jairaj’s support.

Then, nearly two decades ago, when the family was staying at Raja ka Purwa slum, she underwent a transformation that was triggered by their filthy living condition.

For 700 families living in the area there was not even one community toilet, which forced everyone to defecate in the open. Had someone tried to draw a picture of hell that slum would have fitted the description perfectly,” she recalls.

Kalavati Devi’s transformation from a demure housewife to a confident and industrious construction worker happened about two decades back, when her family was staying in Raja Ka Purwa slum. The extremely filthy living conditions led her on the crusade to build toilets and bring about a change in the community. (Credit: Alka Pande\WFS)

Kalavati Devi’s transformation from a demure housewife to a confident and industrious construction worker happened about two decades back, when her family was staying in Raja Ka Purwa slum. The extremely filthy living conditions led her on the crusade to build toilets and bring about a change in the community. (Credit: Isabelle Rose Neill)

Kalavati wanted to do something for her locality and Shramik Bharti was looking for committed people like her who wanted to bring about change from within. It was Jairaj who took his wife to the NGO to talk about her plans – she had made up her mind to find out how a public toilet could be constructed in Raja ka Purwa.

Recalls Ganesh Pandey, founder member of Shramik Bharti, “We were exploring work possibilities in areas that needed urgent attention when Kalavati approached us with her idea of getting a 10-20 seat public facility built in her slum.” It was a feasible project and Shramik Bharti gave her a go ahead.

Of course, there were many challenges that came in the way. “Neither did anyone want to donate land to build the facility nor was the community willing to chip monetarily or contribute their labour at the time of construction.There were also several questions raised on the need for a toilet, the procurement of funds and the ‘real’ intentions of the NGO. Basically, people did not really feel that they were living poorly or that they needed to change for the better,” elaborates Kalavati.

But this was Kalavati’s dream and she was prepared to go that extra mile to fulfil it. She went door-to-door speaking to families and even conducted joint meeting with the community to convince them to back her plan. In the end, her passion and infectious enthusiasm got to everyone and they came on board.

Kalavati Devi (right), the 55-year old resident of Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, has made it her mission to build toilets across all slums and lower income neighbourhoods in her city. (Credit: Alka Pande\WFS)

Kalavati Devi (right), the 55-year old resident of Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, has made it her mission to build toilets across all slums and lower income neighbourhoods in her city. (Credit: Isabelle Rose Neill)

Next, she approached the Commissioner of the Kanpur Municipal Corporation, to inquire about the schemes they could avail of under the urban development programme. The highly impressed officer gave her a simple plan – collect Rs 1,00,000 from the people and the Corporation would add another Rs 2,00,000. It took Rs 3,00,000 to construct a ten-seat community toilet at that time.

Although she knew that gathering funds from the rickshaw pullers, domestic workers and daily wagers who stayed in Raja ka Purwa would be difficult, she took the tough task head on and even managed to get Rs 50,000 – everyone gave as much as they could from Rs 10 to a maximum of a few hundred rupees. Meanwhile, Shramik Bharti arranged for a Rs 700,000 assistance from the state government’s Non-conventional Energy Development Agency (NEDA).

Thereafter, things began rolling quickly. Eventually, a 50-seat facility was constructed and the Municipal Corporation publicly acknowledged Kalavati’s contribution to the project. “It was in those days that I discovered I wanted to become a mason. I would supervise the procurement of material as well as the work, observe the labourers and then give my input. I realised I had a knack for construction work,” she shares. Shramik Bharti also decided to send her for proper training in toilet construction.

I sincerely believe no other work could be as meaningful as what I am doing right now. By constructing toilets I am not only ensuring a clean environment but also saving the dignity of women and girls,” she remarks.

Kalavati Devi is currently working in the crowded Rakhi Mandi shanty near the railway tracks in Kanpur, which did not have even a single toilet till two years ago. (Credit: Alka Pande\WFS)

Kalavati Devi is currently working in the crowded Rakhi Mandi shanty near the railway tracks in Kanpur, which did not have even a single toilet till two years ago. (Credit: Isabelle Rose Neill)

However, what was her passion at one time has also become a necessity today. Since she lost her husband, Kalavati is single-handedly running her household from her construction earnings. At present, she is caring for her elder daughter, Lakshmi, and her two grandchildren who are living with her after her son-in-law’s untimely death.

Kalavati has been a mason for long but how does she feel storming a chiefly male bastion? “Work cannot be segregated on the basis of gender. Work is work and each work has its own dignity,” she says, with conviction. Her working hours are long as she has not fixed any time limit. “How long I work depends on how much time a particular project needs to get completed. Sometimes we work even at night or start very early in the mornings,” she says. Incidentally, she has developed her very own sewer design and construction technique, which she feels is a good move, “I have perfected my own way of laying the sewer line – nowhere does the water gets blocked.

Always cheerful, Kalavati never tires because “I enjoy my work. It gives me immense happiness…This feeling does not let me feel tired”. And her duty doesn’t end with constructing toilets, motivating people to use them is part of her message.

It is women like her who are the uncelebrated brand ambassadors of India’s sanitation movement.

“I have come to Rakhi Mandi with a determination to get toilets made in each and every household. I will not move from this place till that happens. All I desire is to serve people and I hope I am able to do it till my last breath,” she concludes, her eyes welling up with emotion.

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Written by Alka Pande for Women’s Feature Service (WFS) and republished here in arrangement with WFS.

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