Pendlimanu, India - Until a few weeks ago, Rangudunaik Sugali had never felt the need to own a toilet. He couldn't understand why he should spend money on such infrastructure if his family could meet their physiological needs out in the field for free.

Sugali is not the only one to feel this way. About 597 million Indians defecate in the open, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). That is almost half of the country's population, and also 50 percent of all people in the world without access to a latrine.

It's not only a shame for India, but also the source of disease and abuse. This is why Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the ambitious Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Campaign), which includes the construction of 110 million toilets across the country between now and 2019.

"It will be the best way to honour Mahatma Gandhi on the 150th anniversary of his birth," Modi said in one speech. "After all, the father of India was always clear on the issue."

Modi quoted Gandhi as saying: "Sanitation is more important than independence." 

The last government census conducted in 2011 showed only 32.7 percent of Indian households have access to a toilet.

This was a big leap forward considering in 1981 it was only 1 percent, however, it remains well below the rate for most developing countries.

If the plan Modi launched on April 1 is successful, in just four years and at an estimated cost of about $31bn, India will eradicate open defecation.

Mayor Shyoji Ram received a national award because he made sure every family in his town had a latrine [Zigor Aldama/Al Jazeera] 

Handmade loos

Sugali will receive 15,000 rupees ($235) as one of the beneficiaries of Modi's initiative.

The fact the construction of the latrine will be at almost at no cost to him has encouraged Sugali to tackle the project. The village of Pendlimanu, located in the southern province of Andhra Pradesh, is one of the first to undertake the initiative and everyone is enthusiastic.

Sixty-six families have applied for the financial assistance promised by the government and have begun working with their own hands.

"The subsidy is given for each latrine if it meets the minimum established requirements," explained Sagar Murthy, director of the construction department at the Rural Development Trust. The Indian government has entrusted this Spanish non-governmental organisation with the task of convincing the population to participate.

Savithramma Sugali passes a brick to a worker hired to build their toilet as her husband, Rangudunaik, looks on in Pendlimanu village [Zigor Aldama/Al Jazeera] 
The farmer and his wife Savithramma Sugali have been toiling for five days to build their latrine.

"We hired a bricklayer because we weren't sure we'll know how to follow the blueprints. We were afraid of building it wrong, and with his help everything goes faster," his wife told Al Jazeera as she passed some bricks  over to her husband.

"We had to borrow 10,000 rupees [$156] for the construction of the toilet, because we had to advance the money ourselves, and the builder has charged us another 5,000 [$78]. So we hope we'll get the toilet for close to nothing," she said.

Sugali must document the construction process with photographs so that authorities can verify his compliance with the requirements. If in doubt, an official will visit to conduct an inspection. The family will receive the money in two instalments after this.

"The truth is that we now realise the advantages of having a toilet," Sugali said. "Before we didn't even think about it, even though we were embarrassed for doing our bodily functions in public spaces and had to hold it to go at night. Hardly anyone had a latrine in the village, so we didn't consider it."

However, his wife said she did miss having a toilet. "Men have it easy but us women suffer," Savithramma said.

Women use a well as the only source of available water [Zigor Aldama/Al Jazeera]

Why toilets?

"There are three main problems associated with open defecation," Murthy told Al Jazeera.

"Psychologically there is the humiliation involved if one is seen doing it. Then we must take into account diseases that can be transmitted this way, and the abuses that women, who often have to go at night, are exposed to," he said.

This is why Balamma Banvath, a mother of three daughters from the village of Pendlimanu, is now happy.

A few weeks ago she and her husband completed the construction of their toilet, which her three daughters had persistently demanded.

"We are illiterate but they have toilets in the school and they know the difference. So we did not think twice when we learned about the national programme to build them," said Banvath.

"Now we don't have to be embarrassed during the day or expose ourselves to the snakes at night. A woman from the village was bitten and almost died," she recalled.

"It's much more comfortable and neighbours who didn't care about it before are now building their own, if only because they don't want to be less than us," joked the eldest daughter.

This woman and her family are one of 15 remaining still without a latrine in the village [Zigor Aldama/Al Jazeera]

A matter of trust

Venkateshnaik Banavathi, however, is concerned. He still doesn't believe the government will reimburse him the promised $235.

"We have invested 18,000 rupees [$280] because we have also hired a bricklayer and have chosen a better finish," Banavathi told Al Jazeera.

"We don't trust politicians because there is a lot of corruption and it gives me the impression that the plan is full of bureaucracy. Of course it has driven us to build the toilet, because until now we had not done it due to economic reasons, but I'll have to get the money to believe this is for real," he said.

His 17-year-old daughter, however, expressed her contentment.  "Whatever the cost, I'm grateful. I think it is a necessity in a 21st century India," she said.

Recent developments will soon ease such concerns as the government and the NGO agreed next month to start advancing the money to cover expenses.

The remaining 15 families that have yet to build toilets plan to do so soon, and no one will defecate in the open any more.

"Building toilets is relatively simple. You just need money. The difficult thing is to change people's minds," said Murthy.
The villagers must carry water from a well to their homes as running water is unavailable in the village [Zigor Aldama/Al Jazeera]

Access to water, of course, plays an integral part in the plan. Pendlimanu's residents have no running water to keep toilets flushing.

They must walk the dirt road to the well, which is more than a kilometre away, to fill their colourful buckets.

Still, they seem more than happy to do so.

"I wish Gandhiji could come and see our village in a few weeks, when all the toilets are finished. He would be proud," Sugali said.

Source: Al Jazeera