asia, ngo, participatory management, rural, sanitation, sustainability, water justice, water management

Gandhian Thoughts on Gender, Water, and Sanitation

An eight-hour overnight train journey leaves me waking up just before arrival to Dindigul Junction as the engine rumbles to a stop. For my final field visit in South India, I have come to Gandhigram Trust to see how their recent water and sanitation interventions, funded by Arghyam, have affected women and men in rural villages as part of my studies on gender, water, and sanitation.

Gandhigram began with the encouragement of Mahatma Gandhi. He supported his two friends, Dr. Soundram and Dr. Ramachandran, in starting an organization for local development in rural areas. Since 1947, Gandhigram has engaged in a number of activities to empower those in rural communities through promotion of local industries to strengthen economies, building low-cost health centers, providing housing for abandoned children and the elderly, creating schools for youth to study, and – lately – assisting villages in developing water and sanitation systems.

Kasturba, Gandhi, Soundram, and Ramachandran
Above Photo: Dr. Ramachandran, Mahatma Gandhi, Kasturba Gandhi, and Dr. Soundram.

My interest in Gandhian principles (non-violence, simplicity, empowerment, equality, localism, and others) excites me for this visit. I am curious to see how such principles are incorporated into Gandhigram’s water and sanitation activities. What’s more, gender equality and Gandhian philosophy have much in common as they both advocate equality for all people regardless of socio-economic backgrounds and bottom-up, participatory social structures.

Upon arrival, I visit with the Secretary of Gandhigram, M.R. Rajagopalan. He claims not to be a scholar, but his shelves are filled with the writings of Gandhiji and other books on Gandhian thought. He authored a paper entitled “Gandhi – A Divine Environmentalist.” In this paper, he argues if all people are able to embrace Gandhian principles, the world (people, plants, animals, and inanimate objects) will be a kinder, more holistic, and more sustainable place. He says:

“Gandhiji would have wanted us to follow the path of the robust left – of the – centre social democratism where empowerment of women and the weaker/poorer sections of our society was guaranteed. Secondly, he would have liked us to link environmentalism with some basic social, economic, and ethical tenants.”

With this in mind, how does Gandhian thought translate to Gandhigram’s mission to assist villages in access, planning, and managing water and sanitation systems? Further, how does Gandhian thought overlap with reaching gender equality for water and sanitation systems?

By raising awareness about the importance of the use of toilets in reducing the spread of diseases, renovating community standposts and other water structures, and providing micro-credit for the construction of toilets, Gandhigram is creating better access to water and sanitation resources for some women and men in villages. If all people are able to garner equal access (a gender equality and Gandhian goal), less people will fall ill or have to relocate to urban areas (a gender equality and Gandhian goal). Access to water and sanitation resources for many women in these villages is improved by the creation and renovation of community standposts, which reduces their time fetching water, and the construction of toilets, which provides a place for them to manage their menstrual cycle (a gender equality goal).

Renovated Standpost
Above Photo: A renovated standpost in village.

Gandhigram assists with the formation of community groups in villages. One group, called the Village Water and Sanitation Committee, consists of village elders, government leaders, religious leaders, and others of influence. Another group, called the Water Users Group, consists of women in the villages. Both of these groups are intended to facilitate a bottom-up, participatory approach to water and sanitation planning and management (a gender equality and Gandhian goal). But these participatory management structures for planning and management are still evolving, and there are subtle caste, economic, political, and gender disparities which result in unequal participation in planning and managing water and sanitation resources in these villages.

Even in the presence of these existing hierarchical social structures which detract from true equitable and participatory systems, Gandhian principles provide valuable guidance for fair and just access, planning, and management of water and sanitation systems. Other scholars, like Amartya Sen, argue that Gandhian thought is not the answer for global environmental problems. Yet, seemingly, few would contend that fair and equal access, planning, and management of water and sanitation resources is a negative aspiration. It is my belief that equity and empowerment must also come from within each individual. It is up to every one of us in our daily lives – whether in a village or in a city – to incorporate gender equality and Gandhian principles (non-violence, simplicity, empowerment, equality, localism, and others) into our routines in order to create and maintain equitable systems for water and sanitation resources.

“Success attends where truth reigns”- Gandhi’s last phrase for Gandhigram.

Author’s Postcript:
I am living in India for an internship with a water-focused NGO called Arghyam. Along the way, I will document my journey. Please see the Water in India page above for more information.

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