In an Indian village, a children’s theater project leads to better sanitation.
Carambolim Lake, at the edge of the historic city of Old Goa in western India, is used to bad press.
In 1570, an elephant died in the lake, triggering a cholera epidemic that affected more than 900 people. Over the next two centuries, the city declined as outbreaks of disease became common.
Old Goa, located about seven miles from the Goan state capital of Panjim, is now a busy UNESCO World Heritage site. And the lake is an important site for migratory birds and crocodiles. Bordered by a railway track on one side and the village of Carambolim (also known as Karmali) on the other, it offers shelter to thousands of birds, waterfowl species like the Pintail, Pond Heron, and Lesser Whistling Teal. Water from the lake is used to irrigate nearby fields at the end of the summer.
With each passing season, though, fewer birds return to the once crowded lake. As the monsoon waters recede, garbage begins to pile up at the edge. A green carpet of Salvinia molesta, a “killer weed,” spreads over the placid surface.
The children of Carambolim (population 5,100) had had enough when the Mitsuko Trust, a children’s rights organization, started education programs for them.
“We began working with the children to teach them about their rights [under India’s Right to Education Act of 2009],” says Shyamalee Roy, the director of the trust. “The children would come to our center [and] express themselves, with something like, say, art … the children began sharing their problems. We then discussed child rights and what they could do to change things in a responsible way.”
The Mitsuko Trust emphasizes the Right to Participation, the right of children to take part in decision-making processes relevant to their lives. The trust helped set up a children’s council in the village, where the kids can discuss issues without adult interference and write them down anonymously.
“One thing which all the kids talked about was pollution. If you gave them an art project, they would draw something about pollution,” Roy says. “It kept coming back to this issue … Some of the children were bothered by the garbage in the village and others started talking about the lake and how it used to be beautiful, once upon a time.”
After much debate, the children said they wanted to draw attention to water pollution through theater. “One young girl, Diksha Naik, came to us with a drawing of a meandering river, and along the river she wrote the script,” Roy recalls. “It was so stunning that we said this would become the theme, the idea of the play.”
Over the next eight months, the children learned every aspect of theater production. Their play was called Where has the clean water gone? and had five showings in the village and nearby towns; local press covered it.
The play, staged between February and July 2015, was a success. It gave the children confidence, exposed them to a new audience outside their village, and reinforced the idea that they could influence change.
The best part, however, was yet to come.
“During and after the play, the children remarked that the open defecation along the lake was a big source of contamination and filth,” Roy says. The lack of toilets was also a major safety issue for girls and women, prompting incidents of harassment and abuse.
The trust brought in local architect Tallulah D’Silva. “I visited the village, interacted with the residents, and the conditions were shocking. Many didn’t have toilets and the public ones were ill-maintained or unsafe to use,” D’Silva says.
Thirty-six local families expressed interest in having a toilet installed at home, and D’Silva proposed an EcoLoo. This is a dry toilet that uses ash, not water, in pans to turn waste into compost. The wash water is recycled and used for plants.
D’Silva designed the toilet to World Health Organization and UNESCO standards. She sourced the pans from sanitation expert Paul Calvert, who has worked on similar models for the past 20 years.
The first EcoLoo was constructed at a cost of 50,000 rupees (approximately $800). This fall, after monsoon season, the Mitsuko Trust will begin construction on the second one. It is raising funds to build five toilets along the lake that villagers and birders alike can use.
“When we started with the Carambolim project, we didn’t expect to end up with toilets,” laughs Roy. “It goes to show that if children are educated about their environment and given a platform to create change, big things can happen.”