A strategic decision was taken by Rotary in India to build toilets and hold health camps in government schools when Census 2011 put the country’s literacy rate at 74 per cent. “In the next 10 years, we constructed 12,000 school toilets and held 24,000 health camps in government schools in our bid to achieve total literacy… that is 95 per cent. So far, we have installed 10,000 smart classrooms across schools in India,” said RI Director A S Venkatesh.
Speaking at a gathering of over 900 students, teachers, district education officials and members of RC Madras, RID 3232, at the inauguration of two toilet blocks — one for the students and the other for the faculty — at the Government High School at Sithalapuram, a city suburb, he said “wherever there are inadequate toilets, girls are vulnerable to diseases and they drop out of school eventually.” At a health camp conducted at a school in Kattankalathur, a southern suburb, “we found that a Class 5 boy, a habitual backbencher and ridiculed by teachers, suffered from an eye disorder and hence could not see what was written on the blackboard. We detected the vision problem, treated it and within a few months, he was a top ranker in his class.” Urging students to study hard and take up meaningful careers, Venkatesh hoped that once they attain a certain status in life, they would help other underprivileged children. To ensure proper maintenance of the toilet block, he said each of the 48 toilet units can be assigned to a class section and “at the end of the year, the school can hold a contest for the best maintained toilets and prizes can be given to students who have done a good job.”
Seeing the happy faces of girl students, “reminds me of my childhood days at my village where girls were reluctant to attend school for many reasons,” said DG J Sridhar. He lavished praise on the club’s WASH chairman and president-nominee Ravi Sundaresan for taking up meticulously the work involved in the global grant project which took over 3–4 years to complete.
Giving an overview of the project, Sundaresan said eight entities — RCs Madras, Bath (RID 1200), Croydon Whitgift (RID 1145), Warwick (RID 1060), UK, and their respective RIDs — have come together to construct the toilet blocks worth ₹30 lakh. The gender-segregated toilet block for students has six handwash stations to practise group handwashing; while another toilet block for staff has two handwash stations. There is availability of adequate water through overhead tanks.
India is one of the countries in the pilot programme launched in 2016 by RI called WASH in Schools Target Challenge which takes up sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene projects in schools that are integrated with the basic education and literacy goals. “RC Madras is taking up WASH projects after following a ‘needs assessment’ at schools. We are able to complete this project with cooperation from the school headmistress, PTA head and the teaching faculty,” said Sundaresan.
With the new sanitation facilities, the school can now accommodate 1,400 students and has surpassed the UNICEF and WHO benchmarks. “It now fulfils one of the prime requirements of a higher secondary school,” he noted. Nalamthana, an NGO, had conducted awareness sessions for students on proper use of the toilets and the need to maintain them.
In his address, club president Mohan Raman said he was beholden to past presidents N K Gopinath, S N Srikanth, Ranjit Pratap and Dr Vijaya Bharathi for taking the project through successive stages which “enabled us to inaugurate the grand toilet blocks today.” He assured the faculty that any future demands of the school will be met by the club. “We are ready to install 17 smart classes in different schools; and the classrooms of 12 schools will be revamped with ceiling fans, blackboards and other need-based WASH infrastructure under our Schools into Smiles project which will be completed by April,” said Raman. Adhilakshmi Builders has constructed the sanitation facilities and its proprietor R Rangasamy assured that his firm will provide free maintenance for three years.
District educational officer R Rajasekaran said it was a momentous day for the school which was badly in need of sanitation facilities and thanked the club. K Keerthana (Class 8) smiled and said, “now we don’t need to stand in queue before the toilets. We had earlier four toilets for girls and another 5–6 for boys, but they were in poor shape. The new block will ensure we don’t miss classes.” Headmistress Sweetlin Rani said the school is still in need of eight classrooms, a science lab and a smart classroom. “Right now, we have 14 classrooms with 901 students. Also, the height of the compound wall has decreased with the laying of a new road and it needs to be raised by a few metres.”
When the Rotary project began, they had around 600 students, “but seeing the construction of a new toilet block more parents came forward to admit their wards. The school located in a marshland of 6.7 acres has to contend with wild grass and bushes which need to be cleared and the terrain levelled for creating a playground for the students.
Picture by V Muthukumaran
In 2015, RC Madras initiated an End Polio Now flame voyage across the world under the leadership of the then president S N Srikanth with Rtn N K Gopinath holding the torch as EPN Flame chair. “In the UK leg of the voyage, RC Bath was one of our stops. Rtn David Broughton from that UK club had asked his colleague Rtn Brian Joakim to get in touch with me to talk about this sanitation project,” recalls Gopinath.
“Broughton, who handled the EPN flame then, was in regular contact with me. The whole idea of building a toilet block was first mooted by Joakim with support from Broughton and past presidents of RC Madras,” he explains.