Pramila gives up her land, fights cancer to get water and toilets for her village


By Sangita Patra

12 December 2018

One woman’s tenacity and leadership inspire every household in Kapatmunda village in rural Odisha to come together for water, toilets and bathrooms.

Every household in Kapatmunda village has a toilet, bathroom and piped water supply.

Photograph by Ajaya Behera.

Kapatmunda village in Bisra block of Sundergarh district in Odisha has an unlikely hero. A single woman, Pramila Xess, who mobilised her village community of Oram tribe even as she fought the early onset of diabetes and cancer. She lost her life to cancer, at the age of 43, in 2015, but for the community, she is their ‘messiah’, “Even if she is not present among us, we will cherish her dedication. She will always be an inspiration for others in the community”.

Back in 2013, Gram Vikas, as part of its water and sanitation intervention conducted a meeting of all 92 households in the village. The team discussed at length the benefits of building and using a toilet, private bathrooms and having access to 24-hour safe water supply, with the community.

Pramila, a 41-year-old woman and a graduate, was convinced about the benefits to health, women’s safety and the environment from this programme. But she had to work hard, in close coordination with Gram Vikas, to meet the ‘100% inclusion’ rule for the work to start.

Few families were reluctant and seemed happy to use the available open and abandoned spaces for defecation. Not ready to give up, Pramila organised a series of meetings to explain the faecal-oral transmission of disease. She used posters and flip books from Gram Vikas. The villagers were also hesitant by the idea of cost-sharing by all families, as mandated by the programme model. 

An initial meeting between Gram Vikas and the village community. Photograph from Gram Vikas archive.

In June 2013, Gram Vikas organised an exposure visit, for a group of six women, led by Pramila, to the nearby Chutiatola village. This convinced the women about the programme’s benefits but gaining men’s buy-in was a challenge. Pramila, with the support of Bachha Pana, the Community Mobiliser from Gram Vikas, organised door-to-door visits and several meetings to finally convince the men.

Pana remembers the effort, “It was the continuous support of Pramila, which made things much easier for me…She also helped the community to link up with suitable suppliers for bulk purchasing of raw materials for the construction.”  

Even when the community came together, unavailability of land for the construction of the village water tank became an issue. In an act of rare generosity for the common good, Pramila gave up her homestead land for the tank. The land ownership was officially transferred to the 11 member Village Water and Sanitation Committee (VWSC) with the overall responsibility of establishing the village water sanitation system. Pramila served as the President of VWSC, with 50% representation of women, till the time she was in good health.

A community water tank built with the support of Gram Vikas. Photograph by Ajaya Behera.

By the end of September 2016, every household in the village had a toilet, bathroom and water supply through the day. Women and girls no longer had to carry water from the tube wells or open wells in the village. Kiran Minz, 36 years old, talks about the change, “It is such a relief…earlier we had to wake up early in the morning to fetch water and finish bathing to avoid unwanted male glances. We feel safe now if we have to use the toilet at odd hours of the night.”

Pramila died before the water supply was commissioned. But today, each household in Kapatmunda village stands as a testimony to her tenacity and leadership. “Even in her deathbed, Pramila was very keen on taking updates and overseeing progress, which was quite overwhelming and desolating at the same time,” recalls Ratnakar Shaw, then a Project Coordinator with Gram Vikas.

In the picture, Pramila Xess.

Photograph shared by her family.


Ratnakar Shaw, the Sundergarh Cluster Manager in Gram Vikas, helped in story collection.


Sangita Patra is a Senior Executive with Gram Vikas and has been working with nonprofits for over a decade.


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