The Rotary Club of Thane Hills (part of the International humanitarian service organisation) under the presidentship of Atul Bhide in 2013-14, started the ‘Right-To-Go’ campaign in Shahpur, Maharashtra that still has an impact on the villagers living there.
It was likely for the people living in the Shahapur Taluka to walk long distances in search of a “safe” place in the absence of toilets, let alone the condition of women and elderly who also used to wait for a companion to go to the “safer places”. But the scenes at the four villages of the Taluka namely; Sogav, Nandwal, Dahigaon, and Aghai, have changed now. Visiting here, one can find women taking pride as they show their toilets that have been constructed with their labour and the efforts of the Rotary Club of Thane Hills.
As a matter of fact, even the school attendance of the kids residing in these villages has increased due to better sanitation facilities at home, as mentioned by Atul Bhide, a member of the club who had kickstarted the project, ‘Right-to-go’ back in 2013. “It gives an immense pleasure to be able to help maintain the dignity of women with the initiative,” says Mr. Bhide.
A first-generation entrepreneur, Atul Bhide, however, was not very much focused on serving society as, since 1987, he was busy with his ventures of industrial coatings and digital display. Even though he was invited to be a member of the Rotary Club of Mumbai Bhandup in the year 2000 and even after joining, he was investing his time in his own business. The major motivation for Mr. Bhide to join the club was to make new friends and contacts. Later, in 2005, he joined the Rotary Club of Thane Hills by invitation.
His life took a turn when he happened to meet Dr. Verghese Kurien, who is also known as the father of the white revolution in India, in 2011. Mr. Bhide was inspired by the contribution and work of Dr. Kurien in society and felt the urge to spread his journey and the story of life. “The youth always requires a role model. After meeting Dr. Kurien, I felt that he could be one for today’s generation,” he says talking about how he conceptualized and produced an audio autobiography, ‘The Man Who Made The Elephant Dance’, based on Dr. Kurien’s book ‘I Too Had A Dream’. The audiobook was released on September 5, 2012, by Narayana Murthy. “Inspired by Dr. Kurien, I decided to fully involve myself in the social sector,” reminisces Mr. Bhide.
By this time, the Thane resident was already a member of Rotary Club Thane Hills, but the next year, 2013, brought a change when he became the President of the club for 2013-2014. According to the code of conduct, each President during their term had to undertake a new project for the betterment of society, and this was finally his turn to do something for people. He began searching for the project when one fine day, he talked to his father, who was also working for the betterment of women’s self-help groups in Thane. His father, as Mr. Bhide says, advised him to conduct a survey on their problems, after which he started visiting the villages of Shahapur Taluka to talk to people.
Out of all the other problems mentioned by the villagers, Mr. Bhide noticed that the crisis of toilets was common and was raised particularly by the majority of women. It took no time for Mr. Bhide to decide what he wanted to do, which led to the inception of ‘Right-to-go’ at Sogav village. Soon after, the hundred-plus members of the club started finding out ways to start the work and decided to hire a local contractor for the project. “We hired the contractor who was also an acquaintance to the villagers so that they could easily have access to the person who is accountable for the work and to them,” the 55-year-old says.
Not only this, but the members of the club also decided to rope in the villagers who were the beneficiaries of the unskilled construction work so that they could feel a sense of belongingness and ownership. “Another motive behind this was to make sure that the villagers do not get used to accessing facilities without having to do the hard work as we fear it could decrease the importance of toilets for them,” Mr. Bhide says.
Connectivity – a hurdle
Nilesh Puranik, who was one of the Director Special Project and also an active member of the club, had taken on himself to send the personnel for checking the quality of raw materials and assess the work. But it was not always easy. Since the tribal village had poor road connectivity and no electricity, it was, at times, difficult to arrange the resources and transport the materials. There were also places where no pucca roads were available, and only bikes and bullock carts could commute.
Mr. Puranik goes back to the monsoons of that year and says that even the temporary roads were nowhere to be seen, and they had to transport the raw material,s and the supervisors had to reach the construction sites through the paddy fields filled with water. “The lack of basic facilities led the team to cross the area in a small boat,” the 51-year-old remembers.On the other hand, the club was dealing with a financial crunch. But as they say, ‘If you want something, the whole world conspires to help you get the same’, the saying seemed to have proved true here as Dr. Renuka Desai, an Indian who was settled in the USA came back to the country to contribute towards the development of Dharavi – the slum area in Mumbai. Fortunately, Mr. Bhide contacted her and shared the details of his project, after which Dr. Desai made visits to the villages, talked to the women, and agreed to contribute.
The help also poured in from the Rotary Club of Cherry Hill, the USA, where Dr. Renuka Desai was a member. Moreover, Dr. Desai and Mr. Bhide approached Rotary International’s Global Grant, and it turned out to be successful. As a result, the Thane Hills Rotary Club managed to build 211 toilets. After the completion of the construction, the team visited the Sogav village and found out that the toilets had already become a matter of “bragging” for women!
However, the club did not stop with the project in 2014 and went on to serve the villages with toilets making the count of 792 individual green toilets for more than 5000 beneficiaries. The last project in Aghai village that took place between 2018 and 2020 also saw the inclusion of the ‘Tippy-Tap’ hand wash system where the club, along with building toilets, not only introduced the hand wash system but also provided the villagers with the materials required to make the system on their own. “We observed a behavioural change in the people towards sanitation and hygiene, which was one of our major objectives,” Mr. Bhide says.
After the success of the project ‘Right-to-go’, he further says that the team received many calls from people demanding toilets in their region. “The actual drawback of Swacch Bharat Mission lies in the fact that the government data takes a long time in updating. So, the administration builds toilets in the villages mentioned in their paper. But till that time, more houses are established and they remain deprived of the benefits,” he says. On the other hand, Mr. Puranik emphasises the need for people to take up more such development activities in the tribal regions of the country.
In February 2022, four members from the Thane Hills Rotary club visited Nandwal village – part of the project in 2015, and found out that toilets were being used and were well maintained, on which Mr. Bhide says, “So good to see our emphasis on behaviour change works!”