Like every year, lakhs of people are expected to join the Aashadhi Yatra that begins from the Sant Tukaram Temple at Dehu in Pune District today and culminates on 16th of next month in the temple town of Pandharpur. This Yatra on foot en route 34 km distance is joined by a large number of devotees from other towns and villages on the way. The 21 day yatra culminates on ‘Ashadi Ekadashi’ in the Pandharpur considered the Centre of Bhakti movement in Maharashtra. Lakhs of pilgrims throng the famous Vithoba Temple located in this pilgrimage town situated on the banks of the river Chanderbhaga.
While almost 15 lakh people congregate at Pandharpur on ‘Ashadi Ekadasi’, even on other ‘Ekadashis’ two to three lakh people visit this town and 10 to 15 thousand people every weekend. So actually it is almost round the year that the pilgrims throng Pandharapur and that is why the need for permanent toilets structures become a necessity.
For decades lack of toilets in this small town about 120 kms from Pune led to open defecation by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims creating health hazard.
“It was impossible to walk without soiling one’s feet because of the open defecation by pilgrims also referred to as ‘wakaris’ who converged on this town says Sachin Kamble a local journalist.
Many of the devotees who stayed along the river too had no choice but to defecate in the open. The locals were willing to provide accommodation to the pilgrims but would not let them use their toilets.
Shikhare who belongs to this town says ironically while the yatris visited Pandhrapur during yatra, the locals preferred to move out on trips elsewhere because of the unhygienic situation and fear of spread of diseases that was created because of open defecation.
That is no longer the case. Over the last few years, the situation has improved considerably.
Today Pandharpur boasts of the biggest toilet complex in the world. Maharahstra government has sanctioned over 100 crore rupees for the project. Permanent structures with 50 toilet seats each are being constructed on the route at several points where pilgrims halt for the night. Till last year the a cluster of eight mega toilet complexes with over 1400 toilet units in the temple’s vicinity had been constructed. These toilet complexes also have disabled friendly toilets and washrooms where the pilgrims can change their clothes.
Toilet project ‘Nirmal Wari’ was initiated some years back by the state government. Last year 20,000 mobile toilets were deployed during the yatra. But that was not enough so Maharashtra government roped in Sulabh International Social Service Organisation to create more toilet facilities. In all, twenty three toilet complexes are to be constructed and the number of toilets would rise to 2900.
Shikhare who works at one of these toilet complexes located in the vicinity of the Vitthal Temple, said these toilet complexes have completely changed the scenario in the town. He said that Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has had its impact with many of the people living in nearby slum areas, now coming forward to construct toilets. He says that instead of defecating in the open, more and more people are using the community toilets. Amul Patil who lives in JJ colony not far from this complex said he would rather pay fifty rupees a month for his family to use the toilets than defecate in the open creating health hazards for himself and others.
Today Maharashtra is 80 percent Open Defecation Free (ODF) against the national average of 64 percent. Speaking at a function to launch ‘Darwaza Bandh’ to promote toilet use and freedom from open defecation across the country’s villages, the state Chief Minister said that Maharashtra is committed to become ODF by March next year.
It is not just about Maharashtra, being a multi religious society, pilgrimages on foot or otherwise are part and parcel of our socio-cultural life. It is therefore important that such places and the routes to these places should have toilet facilities, prefabricated, temporary or permanent structures, so that the pilgrims are not forced to defecate in open and create health hazards. It is hoped that with the Government’s commitment towards sanitation and the resounding success of the Swachh Bharat campaign, pilgrims across the country will not have to defecate in open and create health issues for themselves and others.
*Author is a New Delhi based independent Journalist and writes regularly in Newspapers on social sector issues.