Shanthi Century, Not Out
Interview with Shanthi
(Owner of the first Ecosan toilet)
Shanthi, an ordinary SHG member (in Kameshwaram) has 100 Ecosan toilets to her credit. Today Kameshwaram has the highest number of Ecosan toilets in the entire Nagapattinam district and thanks to Shanthi many more Ecosan toilets are going to be constructed.


Could you please introduce yourself?

My name is M. Shanthi. My native place is Thiruthuraipoondi1 village in the Thiruvarur district of Tamil Nadu. I belong to the Nadar2 community.

I am the only child of my parents. I have no brothers or sisters. I have studied up to the 12th standard. I have also  done a    course in typing. Since I was the only child and a daughter, I lived a very protective life.

I knew nothing about the society or world at large. I have been married for 10 years. My husband belongs to the Pandaram3 community. Ours is an intercaste marriage. My husband liked my behavior and manners when he came to see me the first time.

After I got married, I came and got settled here. I have two children. My son’s name is Shivsankar (studying in class 4) and my daughter’s name is Shivsankari (studying in class 1). After the birth of my daughter, I heard that a women’s group was being constituted in our village. I became a member of the group and through this group, I learnt about life outside my home. Initially my husband asked me to refrain from its activities. But since there were no literate members among the group, they said they needed me and assured me of all support on the family front. The other members also said that they would take care of my children if I had to travel for work related to the group.

Initially I used to get scared even if I had to get into a bus. I used to tremble at the thought. For everything I needed company, either my husband, or my mother or my father would accompany me everywhere. But, as time passed by, things changed. Now I am confident of going anywhere, meeting anybody.

Earlier, I was only a member of the women’s group of SCOPE4. Now I am the Vice President of the village panchayat.

What happened when the tsunami came? What were you doing at that time?

It was a day in the sowing season when the tsunami struck. My mother was visiting us. After eating breakfast, my husband left towards the shore to sow the peanut seeds. When I went outside to see him off I saw some commotion outside but I did not pay attention. I returned inside. Generally we first tie the goats and then take our lunch/meals by 11 am. That day we were all feeling very hungry and so we decided to eat first and then attend to the daily chores like tying the goats, etc.

I had just gone inside to get the plates and I heard a very loud noise. At that time, my kids were squatting outside for toilet. (Earlier there were no latrines and so we had to make do in the open fields). Hearing the sound I told my mom, “somebody must have fallen into the pond, let me go and check outside”.

When I came out, I saw a huge column of water…a mass of water rushing from the shore towards our houses. I also saw my husband running towards home. I just dropped everything. My children were outside…without any knickers or clothing. We just picked them up without even cleaning and washing them and started running. My husband kept shouting “Run faster, I was close to the shore and I have seen the water chasing everybody, the wave is higher than a tall palm tree”. My husband is well built, and earlier he was selected for a job in the police. Only because of his strong physique and stamina he could manage to escape from the seaside. I kept running with one of the children in my arms. He carried my daughter. I could not run very fast, I felt some chest pain. I was fasting on the earlier day and so I felt very tired. We reached some distance where we saw the village president Kanakasundaram.

He saw me running with the child and immediately offered a lift in his truck which was going to Tiruvarur. The truck was already full with many other fisher folk. I got into the truck but my husband and mother were still running behind. The truck had still not left the village when its tyre got punctured. All of us got down and started running again. Everybody was crying and shouting for help. People were screaming because their relatives were left behind or taken away by the waves. My husband and mother joined me.

I almost felt like I would faint. I was all dirty. My son was also crying and dirty. We were hungry and felt like begging for food. But there were so many hungry people who could feed everybody? We heard that water was rushing towards us from all sides. People advised us to get out of the village and just run away. But where could go? We said “we will not go. If we are destined to have a watery grave then so be it. We stuck to each other and took refuge in the Mariamman temple. After that, the president bought rice and other cooking materials, cooked food and served it to us.

As soon as I heard that the water had receded I left the family at the temple and came back to check our house and belongings. I could not find any thing in my house. I found our utensils floating among the palm trees. The soil was damp and wet. Somehow I managed to collect whatever I could. I locked all the articles inside my house, and ran towards the temple. I was scared of the water, and thought it might rise again. Off and on there were rumors about waves and we kept shunting between the temple and the house. We had 13 goats. All of them died due to the water. We buried the dead goats. There were corpses and animal carcasses everywhere. The stench and filth was just unbearable. When we came back to see our house the next day, we all felt it would have been good, if the waters had taken us all. More than 30-40 kids had died in the neighborhood. Their parents were inconsolable. We got saved but life was hell after the tsunami.

When we all ran on that day, we did not even carry any money. We had no clothes. Since the previous day was Christmas many people who were visiting Velankanni5, got buried there.

After ten days, I went to my native place with my mother. My husband stayed behind because massive looting and robbery was taking place in our village. I came back after a week. For almost a month we (our family and some others) would stay together, eat together and sleep in the church because we were scared.

Many NGOs came here and distributed eatables like rice, pulses, and biscuits. We survived on this food. Then the NGO Asha built temporary shelters for us and we started living in them. The panchayat also helped us. We were close to 300 people staying in the Mariamman temple.

How did you get to know about the Ecosan toilets?

After the tsunami, this whole place was filled with filth, dirt and water. At that time, there were no toilet facilities. A number of NGOs visited our area. Most of them donated food items. Then Sir ( M Subburaman, Managing Trustee, SCOPE) from SCOPE came and said that they would make arrangements for getting toilets made for us. They visited us many times.

First they explained about the Ecosan toilets and suggested that such toilets could be constructed in our area. The next time they discussed the benefits.  

They shared that this toilet contains two chambers, one for the urine and water and the other for the solid waste/excreta. We need to fill in ash and also dry leaves and keep it closed for six months. The final product becomes organic manure. They even brought the powder samples with them to show that this manure can be handled with bear hands. This could be used in farming as manure and fertilizer. We asked them to give a demonstration on the working of these toilets.   

Since I was a women’s group member, he asked me to convene a village meeting about this. In the following week, I went around in the village and organized a meeting with 50 people including members of the women’s organization. The Director of SCOPE, Supervisor and other members of the organization addressed the gathering. They screened a film on how Ecosan toilets are constructed and what their benefits are. They displayed how to pour ash, clean the toilet and all the other aspects.

Many people felt that pouring ash was not a good and workable idea. They felt that the common flush type of toilets and the septic tank type of toilets are the only good ones.  The Ecosan toilet looked strange and new to everybody and it appeared that it would give out a very bad odour.

People made fun. They said if one was to pour ash instead of water on the fecal waste where and how would one go and cleanse oneself after defecating?  When such objections were raised, Sir explained the working of these toilets in detail. He also suggested that we could all visit Tiruchi to see how these toilets were functioning.  He asked me to collect people and arrange a trip to Tiruchi. He assured us that the organization would arrange the transport. So after a fortnight all of us went to Tiruchi. We visited places like Kaliyar, Palayam, and Musiri.  After the visit, the village people felt that as a concept it seemed to be a good idea to have these toilets. But they were not completely convinced.

They said that I should get one made in my house after which they would decide whether they want it in their household or not.  I told Sir, “it does not matter whether anybody else is interested or not. I feel the need and I am interested in getting one made in my house and you please go ahead with it.”  I assured him that once the toilet was built in my house, I would take the responsibility of showcasing its importance to the whole village and getting their approval for construction of more such toilets in the village.  Within a month they started the construction of the toilet at my house. It was much needed at that time because there was filth, mud and water everywhere. It was difficult to go out in the open for relieving oneself. We were very happy that SCOPE came up with a solution to our problem.  

See here the ground water is at less than five feet from the ground level.  In the septic tank kind of toilet, the fecal waste seeps into the ground water and that is the water we consume. In this toilet, it can be made and used even if there is a running water pipe line near it.  I have been using this Ecosan toilet for the past one year and I don’t feel any bad odour or anything.  Many times children come back from school and play near the toilet. There is no problem.

So, the toilet was constructed in my house. It was inaugurated on a large scale. Many people from other villages and far off places visited my house to see the feasibility of such toilets. PO Sir ( this is not clear in the interview either) also came and saw it. We spread the word that we are not facing any difficulties with the new toilet. Soon by word of the mouth the news spread and many other people got toilets constructed in their homes. The 50th Ecoscan toilet was made recently.

What efforts did you make to convince the people about this toilet? What made them agree?

There are six wards in this area. I used to go the important people in each of these wards and discuss about the Ecosan toilets. They used to come and visit us and then go back and replicate the toilet construction in their ward. This would again lead to another ten people getting motivated and constructing the toilets.  In this way, 100 toilets were constructed and about 50 more are in the process of construction. There is a demand for 200 more toilets.  

I struggled a lot to explain about these toilets to everybody in the village. My children got exposed to this new toilet at a very early age. They were able to appreciate the benefits of it. They talk to other children. I feel that the Ecosan toilets are here to stay. Now, you see, Sir is getting these toilets constructed in the village school also. My children are already using it at home, and from next week, when the school Ecosan toilets open, they will get used to it there as well. So will other children. We all feel very proud about this development. Our many thanks are due to Sir.  

The 50th toilet in the village was built in John Kennedy’s household.  That occasion was made it into a mass celebration. The village Gram Panchayat President was invited. The SCOPE representatives and local government officials also participated.  In that function, Sir, insisted that I should declare open the 50th toilet in the village. The reason was that I was the first to take the initiative and had worked hard to promote and campaign for this cause. It was a moment of pride for me.

The present President Kanakasundaram Sir was the President even in the past term of five years. I felt honored when I was asked to inaugurate the toilet in the presence of such senior and important people. I felt was grateful that Sir chose an ordinary women’s group member like me for the task, instead of any of the bigwigs.  

Soon we crossed the 100th toilet milestone. Kameswaram is the only panchayat in India that has 100 Ecosan toilets already. Even on that occasion the organization asked me to inaugurate and declare the toilet open for use.

On that day I received this award from the District Collector (Ecosan Toilet Award). Along with me, two other people received this award-the village President and Nagappan (?) ( Nagappan is the owner of 81st Ecosan toilet and just like Shanthi he's been actively involved in the construction of Ecosan toilets.) . We are told that we will receive an award from the President of India as well. Sir told me that he will take me to Delhi for receiving it.

Do you think these toilets are better than the Septic tank ones?

Yes they are certainly better. Regarding toilets, the panchayat President proposed in the Gram Sabha meeting that if we contributed Rs.500/- the government would pool in the remaining amount and provide squatting pans and other construction materials for the traditional toilets. They left it to us to decide what kind of toilets we would like to have. At that time, I expressed my disinterest for the septic tank toilets. I suggested that we should explore the Ecosan toilets.

The Septic tank toilets pollute the environment. In order to clean them, we need to hire the scavengers, we need to supply kerosene to them, and we have to provide them with liquor.  And then, we need to go and find laborers to do the task. We may not find them when we need them and we cannot depend on them. When the Septic tanks are opened for cleaning, they stink. It is difficult to cook meals or food at home on that day. At times toxic gases are released and people die. Last month, two people died due to this in Karaikaal.  When they go and dump the fecal waste from the Septic tank elsewhere, it again pollutes the environment.  

In this toilet, we do all the cleaning ourselves. There is no need to use Dettol, Phenyl or any such chemicals. There is no need to scrub or flush. Just one bucket of water is enough to clean ourselves. There is no stink or odour. We can open the chamber door, remove the waste with bare hands and use it as manure for the plants/garden.  Most families here have agriculture as their primary occupation. I am personally using this toilet for the last one year.  You can see for yourself there is no stink or bad smell, the children play near the toilet. So this is very good.  

What about other villages which are not in the SCOPE area?

SCOPE and UNICEF provided two buckets for all the people in our village; one bucket for the collection of decomposing garbage/waste and the other bucket for non-decomposable garbage. We collect the decomposable garbage like dry leaves etc. and use it in agriculture.

You can see one there… In the vicinity there are many other villages such as Vrindamani, PR Puram, but they do not have the Ecosan toilets.  The buckets were not given to these villages.  After they were distributed in our village people from the neighboring village started talking about why they did not receive the free buckets. Then, they themselves found the answer. They understood that these buckets were distributed by SCOPE as we had constructed new toilets here, whereas in their villages there were no such toilets.

On this realization, people from neighboring villages came to our village to see the toilets. Last week also there was a bus load of visitors. They also hired vans to come here.  They saw the Ecosan toilets and said that they will also construct such toilets in their villages.  Many people come here and ask a lot of questions about the use of these toilets.  In the Pudupalli village they have already started constructing the Ecosan toilet.  All this development is due to help from SCOPE only.

What was your situation prior to the tsunami?

Prior to tsunami, we had to go out to the open fields before day break.  In case we overslept on any day, then it would be difficult to go to the toilet out in the open in broad day light.  Not only that, the fecal waste would just lie here and there and dry. It was a horrible sight.  It was bad even for the children. They would play in dirty surroundings. We had to control our stools during the day time. When we had dysentery, we would have no other option but to rush to the fields to pass stools. Invariably there would be men hanging around and it was embarrassing for the women. During the rainy season, there would be water every where, we had to wade our way in the flowing water to reach the open fields. With no cover, we had to ease ourselves in the rain. People would fall sick in the rainy season. But now things are better, we have no worries.

How are the men taking the new arrangement? Do they object to the use of these new toilets?

No. Everybody uses these toilets. In my household all the members use the toilet daily.  My husband too does not go out in the open fields anymore.

How did you train the children to use this toilet?

Initially the children did not know how to use and maintain these toilets. They used to defecate and after that I used to pour the ash on the solid fecal waste. Then I used to wash them up. Now they themselves pour the ash in to the pit. It has become a routine for them. When relatives or friends come home, we have some difficulty.  We have to explain the working of the toilet to them. The visitors are not used to the dry toilet.  However this needs to be done once. The next time they visit us they know how to use the toilet. Most of them like it and express that they will get a similar one constructed in their home.  They regret why the tsunami did not touch their lives!

What benefits did you highlight when you spoke to people about these toilets?

First I told them that these toilets were odour free. The second thing I pointed out was that there is no need to spend Rs.50-100 on a monthly basis for maintenance (for purchase of Dettol, Phenyl, etc.) I told them that as agriculturists, we buy fertilizers and manure at an exorbitant cost. But with these toilets manure would be available for free. I also added that the plantain grown on soil with this manure have been tested, and have been found to be clean, and free of germs and bacteria. I also showed them how plants in the vicinity of the toilets grew healthy than the other plants. I kept highlighting all these points so that they could realize the value themselves.

Are all the people in this village ready to get this toilet constructed?

Yes. 100 toilets have already been built. Sir proposes to help in construction of 200 more toilets.  Currently construction of 50 such toilets is in progress.

What do the people who already have Septic tank type of toilets do?

Most of these people are now interested in getting Ecosan toilets also constructed in their houses. For example, the President shared with you, he is interested in getting an Ecosan toilet made in his house and has already asked for it. He regrets that no alternatives were available earlier and he had to get a traditional toilet constructed.

What about the costs? Are you bearing the complete cost? Do you have any financial aid?

We contribute Rs.2100/- the rest of the money is organized by Sir.

Are the other people in the village ready to bear this cost?

Yes they are.  You see they are constructing houses as part of tsunami rehabilitation. In the newly constructed houses, generally Septic tank toilets are made.  The beneficiaries of the rehabilitation schemes are requesting that the space for the proposed Septic tank toilet be converted into the kitchen or an additional room. Instead of the Septic tank toilet people are ready to construct Ecosan toilets themselves. They are requesting officials not to build the traditional toilets in the rehabilitation houses.  See that house. It was built during rehabilitation. It was constructed by an agency called the PCI. The occupants of the house say that they do not want the constructed toilet. They converted the toilet space into a room and have said that they will build an Ecosan toilet at their own cost.

Was there any structural damage in your house after the tsunami?

Yes, there were structural damages in the house.  See that was our original house. This present house has been provided by an agency called Asha. This is a temporary shelter.

What about these houses?

These are the newly constructed temporary dwellings. An organisation called Rose had established a tailoring institute so that structure was not dismantled, it is just there. ( She 's referring to one hut which was built as a tailoring institute...but now it is being used to stock cement for the constrcution of Ecosan toilets..this hut is in Shanthi's premises- we do not have more details on this and I don't think it is something important)

When were these temporary shelters constructed?

These temporary dwellings were constructed for us by Asha volunteers, as we did not have any place even for sleeping post-tsunami.  We used to sit for hours. Seeing our plight they constructed these dwellings within a day.  The very next day, we picked up whatever belongings we could manage to find from our old house and started living in these houses.

In those days, we had no place to sleep, eat, and defecate. It was even difficult to walk on the ground. It used to just give away…it was all wet mud and clay. We would get stuck in all kinds of waste and dirt-glass pieces, rotting clothes, footwear, bangles, boats, lying everywhere. Besides we would see dead bodies everywhere. It was all froth and foam. At times we used to wonder whether we would ever get back our old lives.

Many people gave up their lives in the tsunami. But then all this development and all this activity happened only after the tsunami. If there had been no tsunami, Sir would not have come to this village probably and we would not have known about these toilets. So it looks like a lot of people lost their lives, in order to bring some development and progress into our lives, the survivors.

Were you allotted a new house from the government?

No we were not in the village when the officials arrived for the survey. Subsequently I made more than three visits to the Collector’s office to represent my case but they are yet to act on my petition. The Government has again conducted a survey to include those who were left out in the previous survey. They have assured us that the houses would be constructed by this March.

How many other people were left out?

There are about 250 such people. You can see here, these people are living in temporary shelters built by Asha.  They all lost their original houses to the tsunami and they are living in the temporary houses.  Some how, we have been overlooked and for others yonder houses have already been constructed and allotted.

Where were you when the survey was held?

Immediately after the tsunami, we were very scared to stay here.  We were very nervous. For almost a month, we stayed at the temple near the panchayat office.  After that I went to my native place, Thiruthuraipoondi.  While we were away, the officials came and conducted the survey and decided the beneficiaries. We did not receive any compensation.  We lost 13 goats but did not receive any compensation for that. All the others received some amount, but we did not receive any.

Then did you buy more goats?

No. we just bought a cow. No more goats, we feel sad looking at them. So we stopped rearing goats.

What about water? Where do you get water from?

The hand pump over there is our water source. After the tsunami the water has become very salty everywhere in lakes, ponds and hand pumps. The panchayat provided a new hand pump and laid pipelines. We use this water for drinking and all other purposes.

We use the pipe water for bathing also. The waste water after bathing is channeled to the trees. We used to irrigate paddy fields earlier with waste water. But now the soil is salty so we cannot grow rice. However we don’t allow that water to stagnate here. We were aware about cleanliness and hygiene earlier also, but now we are more aware. At least I can say this for myself.

As regards others, there are some people in the village who still take a bath in the pond, some in the house, and the ones who can afford and are well to do have private bathroom in their house. At times, they set barricades around the pipe and take a bath. Generally everybody maintains cleanliness and hygiene. As you can see, there are no open gutters in the village.

Where do you do your cooking, inside the house or outside the house?

We cook inside the house. Earlier, we had a separate place for cooking in the house. Now we cook, eat and sleep in the same place.

What else keeps you busy?

We are agriculturalists. I am an active member of the women’s group but I do not go to work. Generally I am at home. But now since I am the Vice President of the panchayat, I spend quite some time there. I take care of some tasks at the panchayat office. Apart from that, I do social work. Many organizations approach me and assign various tasks to me. For example, this organization called Real Plan [ ] this link will give you Real Plan NGO profile....has arrived and they are attempting to provide training on the usage of the hand pump. They have asked me to suggest names of participants for the training.  Whenever people approach me, I readily work for their cause.  I wish good for all and want to develop this into a model village. There is a lot to be done.

Ends here
1. Thiruthuraipoondi is located 330 km south of Chennai, 40 km west of Nagapattinam and 65 km east of Thanjavur.

2. A warrior caste in Tamil Nadu, India

3. The Pandarams are considered as the representatives of the Tamil Hindus. They conduct pujas or offerings for such Gods or Deities termed by the Brahmins as Gods and Goddesses of lower castes and untouchables.

4. The Society for Community Organization and People’s Education, a non-profit, non-Government Organization registered under the Public Trust Act on February 7, 1986, works for the integrated socio-economic and human development of disadvantaged and under-privileged communities in interior micro villages of Musiri Block in Tiruchirappalli District and Perambalur Block of Perambalur District of Tamil Nadu, India.

5. Velankanni is situated 12 Km south of Nagapattinam. The shrine here is dedicated to Virgin Mary, who is believed to have healing powers.