How many 11-year-olds have a sapling planted in their honour or have had the spotlight turned on them?
K P Suchitra of Kamarahalli village in Karnataka can boast of both. She proudly displays a mango sapling in her school’s backyard which was planted in her honour six months ago by the late Cabinet Minister for Cooperation and Sugar H S Mahadev Prasad. One immediately thinks of RIPE Ian Riseley’s passionate plea to all clubs to plant at least one sapling per member during his year as President… “that way we’ll get at least 1.2 million trees,” he says.
Recently, she also achieved the rare feat of being featured in the cover story of The Hindu in its Sunday edition, highlighting her role in convincing her community to build toilets. This led to her being honoured by the Delhi Commission for Women with the DCW Achievement Award for spearheading the cause.
Every evening I would visit my friends’ homes and tell their parents that open defecation brings diseases and it is unsafe to use the fields and persuaded them to build a toilet.
It is summer vacation but the government school in Kamarahalli is abuzz with activity; the headmaster Shivakumar and his team of teachers are happy to host the who’s who of the village — the Gram Panchayat President Nagalambika, Zilla Parishad member Rathnamma and the Gram Sabha members. I am at the school, along with the Rotarians of RC Chamarajanagar, to meet Suchitra, who is playing with her schoolmates, unaffected by all the adulation being showered on her. Her crusading spirit for a toilet in every home of her friends has resulted in toilets being built in all the 20 houses of her village. The ripple effect is such that the entire Gundlupet taluk comprising five villages including Kamarahalli is ‘open defecation free’, as every house, except three where work is under way, has a toilet.
So how did you do that, I ask Suchitra. “My friends would run to school to use the toilet. They were ashamed to use the fields near their homes to relieve themselves. I had a toilet in my house and my friends too wanted one in their homes. So, every evening I would visit their homes and tell their parents that open defecation brings diseases and it is unsafe to use the fields and persuaded them to build a toilet,” she replies in Kannada, which Rtn C V Srinivas Shetty translates into English.
Suchitra is a classic role model of all that WinS Target Challenge Committee Chair Sushil Gupta has been highlighting from the start of Rotary’s WinS programme — to bring behavioural change in communities through schoolchildren whom he refers to as ‘Agents of change.’
Suchitra, the face of USHA
Suchitra hastens to acknowledge her mentor, the then Zilla Panchayat CEO Hephsiba Rani Korlapati, who had inspired her family to construct a toilet in their house in 2014.
Last November, when Hephsiba visited Kamarahalli, Suchitra sought her help for constructing toilets in the village. “We were just launching the campaign USHA (an acronym for Understand, Sensitise, Help and Achieve) that aimed at restoring rights and dignity of girl children and women in the district, with substantial focus on access to toilets and menstrual hygiene management. When Suchitra met me, during one of my field visits, seeking help in providing toilets for the village homes, we quickly roped her in and made her the face of USHA.”
Today I can read Kannada, write and sign my name and perform basic arithmetic, thanks to my daughter. She is my asset.
— Suchitra’s father Prabhu
She is the first of 130 student champions who, along with anganwadi workers, has reached out to about four lakh people across Chamarajanagar campaigning for toilet access and girl child education, among other social issues. Between November 2016 and January this year, 10,000 toilets were constructed and another 8,000 were getting ready, says Hephsiba.
“It was challenging to persuade people to construct toilets because our region is severely drought-hit. Although we convinced the villagers that they will be reimbursed for their expenses under the Swachh Bharat Mission, they hesitated due to other financial commitments,” says Nagalambika. She found a way out by personally funding construction of 300 toilets and later getting reimbursed.
Not to be left behind, the school headmaster Shivakumar says, “I will add another toilet block in the school now. Suchitra has convinced me too.” As he invites us to his cabin for snacks, Suchitra prompts me to “wash clean” my hands, taking us all by surprise. “A perfect ambassador for Rotary’s WinS programme,” says Shetty. She has cultivated the habit of handwash in her classmates too, says her teacher Venkatachalachary.
Suchitra’s parents Prabhu and Geetha soak in the excitement with quiet pride and indulgence. While her father wants her to become an educationist, Suchitra dreams of becoming a doctor and “serve here in my village.” She has given functional literacy to her father who has never been to school. “Today I can read Kannada, write and sign my name and perform basic arithmetic, thanks to my daughter. She is my asset,” says Prabhu. Geetha has studied till sixth grade and helps Suchitra with her lessons at home. Despite their poverty, both are keen to continue her education. They have promptly invested her prize money of Rs 30,000 given by the DCW, in a fixed deposit. Suchitra’s face lights up as she talks about her recent flight to Delhi with Hephsiba to receive the award. Wide eyed, she says she “liked the Rashtrapati Bhavan the best.”
It was challenging to persuade people to construct toilets because our region is severely drought-hit.
Besides batting for toilets, she is keenly promoting tree plantation and even talks about global warming and environmental degradation. She takes us to the backyard of her school where she shows us rows of plants that she tends along with her friends. “We wash and decorate the gods every morning,” says her classmate Sanjay pointing to a row of Naga stones that were unearthed from the premises during the construction of compound wall.
As we bid adieu and prepare to leave, Suchitra hesitantly knocks on the car window and pleads endearingly in English, “one laptop please,” adding after a pause, “Me no…. for my school.” Both her earnestness and charm work magic and immediately the President of RC Chamarajanagar
G Guruswamy promises to extend support to the school and village, to which Suchitra responds “Thumba santhosha” (Thank you so much) with folded hands.
It is easy to see how the little girl managed to motivate an entire village first, and now the whole region, to go in for something so basic and essential — toilets.
Pictures by Jaishree