We are incredibly lucky to have a special, guest blog post this month, written by Anne Milne.

Earlier this year, Anne and Gordon Milne visited some of our sanitation projects in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. They also opened our brand new ecosan toilet block at Periya Nargunam Middle School. In this post, Anne shares her experiences of the visit.

Anne is a senior education practitioner and Gordon is former headmaster of Falcons School for Boys in Richmond. Falcons School for Boys has been a huge supporter of Sanitation First for the past 5 years and over this time has donated approx £50,000 to our work. The visit this year was therefore a long awaited opportunity for Anne and Gordon to see our sanitation projects in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.

Gordon and I arrived at the Sunway Hotel a few hours before the Sanitation First team and so we decided to go for a walk. We didn’t realise but we in fact walked away from the town centre and into a slum area. We were immediately struck by the vast amounts of rubbish discarded along every road, on all pieces of wasteland as well as in the river. Walking anywhere felt like taking our life in our hands as we had to walk along the road while auto rickshaws, motorbikes, buses, cars and lorries hooted their way to jostle for their place. The poverty of many was immediately apparent as we saw their ram shackled homes, were approached by beggars and were aware of the stench of urine as we walked along the roads.

When Louise and David arrived we were very lucky to be shown the work of Sanitation First in and around Puducherry. On arrival at Panchayat Union Middle School, 30 miles south of Cuddalore, we admired the chalked welcome pattern by the school gate and then were shown their new toilet block and given an explanation by Louise of the workings of the ecosan toilets and how to use the ash. Our visit caused great excitement with the pupils all wanting selfies with us. The kindness and selfless generosity of youngsters is always impressive and we were taken to Arthi S’s home and shown the ecosan toilet which was paid for by a grade 8 pupil, Akshaya. J who selflessly donated 25000 rupees instead of having a birthday celebration. This certainly demonstrates an exceptional awareness of others from someone so young. 

At Panchayal Union Primary School we were particularly interested to see that the toilets had been funded by a Leeds Golf Day as we actually live just outside Leeds. Here we were able to look at some of the work done by the pupils and a 10year old boy was keen to read the letter he had written in English to superman.

There were exams at Maryakollai Government High School and so we just had a quick visit to see their toilets. It is hard to believe that such large schools had no toilet facilities before these were provided. These are improving health, restoring dignity and enabling pupils to attend school more frequently (especially the girls) and gain an education. On arrival at Periya Nargunam Middle School we found the pupils had lined up in 2 rows and we walked through them as the pupils clapped. We were each presented with a lilac shawl and then Gordon and I were honoured to be asked to officially open their new toilet block which had been made possible by the fundraising of Monkton Combe Senior School.

Our next stop was at Vadalur Higher Secondary School where we saw the progress being made to build new toilet blocks for both boys and girls and learned about some of the problems in construction including the builders downing tools when one of them was bitten by a snake. Under a huge banyan tree we were presented with colourful shawls. The final school of the day was at Thirripathiripulyiur where funding has just been approved for toilets to be built at the girls only Government High School of 1800 pupils. The block will be built in an area of the school grounds where currently bicycles are stored. The girls here were all keen to try their English skills on us as we walked round outside.

We were also taken to some of the slum areas where Sanitation First are working. What struck me in the first area was that the GroSan Toilet was next to a house which had its own toilet but this family was pleased with this as it meant that the ground next to the house was no longer covered in human waste as the slum dwellers had previously used this ground as their toilet. We had to tread carefully as we walked through the slum area, balancing on stones to avoid falling into the wet and filth. The GroSan Toilets were placed so that approximately 10 families shared each toilet and they had to take responsibility for them.

Just off the road and opposite a temple was another inner city slum area and here we saw a couple of people using bamboo to make the trays for sifting rice. There was an old man suffering from cancer lying on the ground outside his home, a truly heart wrenching moment. These families, as all the slum dwellers, have so little; tiny houses made of sticks and branches, often with a piece of plastic on the roof to cover a leaking area and very few items of clothing but despite this the children were very happy and keen to show off the few English phrases they knew and desperately wanted to pose for a photo. Until they had their toilets installed they were all open defecating with all the problems of disease and ill health that this leads to.

A visit to the Sanitation First compound allowed us to see what happens to the waste from the toilets. Each GroSan toilet has two collection compartments. One compartment is used until it is full and then it is closed down and the other one is used. The full box from the GroSan toilet is removed and taken to the Sanitation First compound where they are left for a month before being converted into fertiliser and then sold in 25kg bags to local farmers. This therefore produces revenue to make the toilets self-financing once they are installed.

We would like to thank David and Louise of Sanitation First for showing us the work of the charity in Tamil Nadu. It has certainly opened our eyes to the sheer size of the problem. In India 774 million people have no access to safe water and sanitation. 60% of the global population who open defecate live in India and this impacts on health and encourages the spread of illness and disease. On average 384 children die each day because of unsafe water and poor sanitation.

Seeing for ourselves the ecosan toilets provided by Sanitation First, we were able to see how the raw sewage was prevented from contaminating the water table and instead is turned into fertiliser to be used by farmers. Currently over 10million households in Tamil Nadu practice open defecation and bit by bit Sanitation First are reducing this and improving health and reducing the number of missed school and work days. The task is vast and we hope that Sanitation First will continue to get funding to enable them to help many more families and schools.

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