A journey from cyclone devastation to women-led sanitation transformation


By Chandrika Patnaik

17 November 2023

Women of Phirikinali build toilets to end indignity.

Jyotsna Sinku stands in front of her under construction toilet and bath room.

Photograph by Sasmita Jena

Cyclone Fani struck in May 2019, causing widespread devastation to the lives of adivasi communities residing in the outskirts of the Chandaka forest of Khurdha district in Odisha. Gram Vikas promptly stepped in to provide crucial relief and rehabilitation support.

Responding to the interest from the community, a longer-term community development effort was initiated in 2020 with six village habitations in the Chandaka region. Being dependent on the forests and with limited land ownership, men and women from these villages work as daily wage laborers at construction sites or farmlands, in neighbouring Panchayats, or in Bhubaneswar, particularly during the paddy season, earning up to Rs. 450 per day. 

Gram Vikas worked with the women’s self-help groups (SHGs) in the villages to build their capacities to initiate sustainable livelihoods and facilitate linkages with banks. Four SHGs from Phirikinali village, Maa Dariani SHG, Maa Binapat SHG, Jeeban Saathi SHG and Maa Kateni SHG were trained to prepare business plans for mushroom, organic manure and poultry enterprises. They were supported to obtain financial assistance from Mission Shakti. They sold their products in the local areas and nearby urban markets. These activities helped them increase household incomes.

Growing confidence and growing aspirations

Phirikinali village, which lies on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar, is adjacent to the densely forested Chandaka elephant sanctuary. For women and young girls of the village defecating in the open was difficult, as forest guards patrolling the core forest area often chased them away. The additional risk was running into elephant herds which freely move around in the sanctuary.

Recounting the challenging circumstances Jyotsna Sinku, of Maa Kateni SHG shared “men can defecate in the open in broad daylight, and that too just a few meters away from the village. However, a woman will never choose that option out of shame unless she is very unwell or suffering from diarrhea”. Further, taking a proper bath was also a privilege. She explained, “There are two community standposts in the entire village, powered by solar energy. We have to fetch water from these standposts for bathing, washing clothes, and cooking. We fill plastic bottles with water and carry them for over a kilometer to defecate deep inside the forest, away from the view of men and the forest guards. This daily trek consumes a significant amount of our time.”

Reena Ugarsandi, 35, President of Jeeban Saathi SHG in the village, underscores that encountering wild elephants is a significant risk to one’s life, aside from the issues with forest guards. “We regularly encounter elephant herds in the forest, and each time, we have to hide behind bushes, clinging to our lives until the herd passes. We wait silently before we can sit down anywhere, wasting time and suffering  acute physical discomfort”. 

Rajani Hembram, President of Binapat SHG noted, “Open defecation by men, women, and children in and near the village creates an unsightly scene, causes unbearable stench, attracts swarms of flies and contaminates the environment”.

The SHGs were a platform for women to meet to collect savings and give out loans. Women from 40 out of 51 households in the village were part of the SHGs. When they met to collect savings, they also talked about their shared hardships, especially the problems caused by open defecation and lack of private bathing spaces. After a crucial meeting involving all the four SHGs, women of Phirkinali collectively resolved to put an end to this problem. They decided to secure a loan against their accumulated savings deposit in the SHG bank accounts and use it to build sanitation and water facilities in their village. Choosing to borrow from the bank meant that the groups would be subject to a considerably lower interest rate as compared to the rates demanded by local moneylenders in the village.

In September 2022, the four SHGs reached out to Gram Vikas to help them with building toilets, bathing rooms and piped water supply for all households in the village and shared their plan of raising a loan to build the sanitation infrastructure. In turn, Gram Vikas leveraged support from Wipro Cares to build piped water infrastructure in the village with an overhead water tank and three water tap connections in each household. 

Women lead the way and drive the change

Reformation of the Village Development Committee (VDC) was necessary to coordinate this work. The women divided responsibilities amongst themselves and reached out to all households to attend a meeting to elect a VDC. A meeting was held in October 2022, where they discussed the importance of a strong VDC to address the challenges faced by the community. Candidates were selected and a ten-member VDC was formed. In the meeting, women led the discussion on problems related to water and sanitation faced by them. They sought support from all residents and the VDC to construct toilets and bathing rooms for all households. 

The women also highlighted their meeting with the Gram Vikas team, who had agreed to help build piped water supply infrastructure in the village. This would ensure that every household received tap water supply at home 24×7. The anticipated benefits included providing women with more time for household chores, enabling better care for their children, and, importantly, ensuring the privacy, safety and dignity of women and young girls while defecating and bathing.

The newly elected President of the VDC, 45-year-old Biranchi Banaraa, led from the front to convince everyone to come on board. “In the meeting that day we encountered resistance from some male members of our community. They were hesitant to invest their money in building toilets and bathing rooms in their homes. Some outright refused, citing the lack of time, as their families relied on the daily wages,” recounts Biranchi. “However, the challenges faced by women and young girls in the village were legitimate, and I was determined to support their initiative.”

In the same month, Biranchi convened another village meeting and addressed those who opposed the idea. He highlighted the health and safety issues faced by the community and especially by women, young girls and children. He emphasized that men and children also face difficulties when going out to defecate, especially during the movement of elephant herds in the village, especially during the paddy season. During this period, most people are reluctant to venture outside to relieve themselves or defecate, as they fear being attacked. Multiple meetings were held between September to November 2022 to convince everyone. 

Jyotsna Sinku, President of Maa Kateni SHG, shared that her husband, Jogendra Sinku, repeatedly reprimanded her, asking her to focus on earning money instead of investing time in village meetings. Sita Chattar, 40, President of Maa Dariani SHG, said that her husband was unwilling to help to construct the toilet and bathing room in their home, saying it would be a loss of income for the family.

Biranchi, acknowledges that the women faced a formidable challenge in convincing their families over the course of six months. However, the women remained steadfast in their determination to have toilets at home, and after numerous meetings, all 51 households eventually reached a consensus.

Creating a life of dignity, leaving no one behind

As part of the post cyclone rehabilitation efforts in 2019, Gram Vikas had initiated a mason training program in the village. Rajani Hembram, the President of Binapat SHG, who participated in the training said, “Thanks to the three-month mason training, I can accurately estimate the material needed, and also do the construction. Nine persons from the village participated in the training, of which five were women.”

These five women, proceeded to estimate the required materials to build the toilets and bathing rooms, calculate the costs, and create a layout for each household. Taking help of the VDC members, they called a village meeting to share the cost estimate and layout. They suggested that families place orders for materials collectively from a single vendor, thereby ensuring purchases were cost-effective.

In August 2023, following the receipt of the loan from the bank, the SHG members proceeded to place orders for the required materials. Rajani shared that there were new challenges. “Eleven families were not part of any of the SHGs. They were unable to afford ₹25,000 required to build a toilet and a bathroom in their homes. The four SHGs decided to allocate a portion of the loan they received from the bank to provide support to these eleven families. This ensured that every household in the village would be covered with sanitation facilities.”

In September 2023, twenty households commenced the construction of their toilets and bathrooms, led by the women masons. “We can build the foundation, raise the plinth, and construct the walls on our own, thanks to the training provided by Gram Vikas. Each household will save upto Rs.9000 towards mason and labour charges. For the roof construction, we will consider employing a senior mason.” shared Rajani.

Janaki Pingua, Secretry of Maa Kateni SHG, expressed her satisfaction in contributing to the construction of the sanitation system. “I made the calculations for the materials. It was truly empowering to accomplish so much on our own without seeking assistance. We are determined to bring toilets to our homes, eliminating the need to roam the forests early in the morning or after nightfall. Our women and young girls will no longer have to endure indignity or face threats to their lives when they need to defecate outside.”

The women of Phirikinali plan to ensure that construction of the toilets and bathing rooms for all 51 households is completed by February 2024. Construction of the overhead water tank was started in December 2022. While Gram Vikas brought in all external material including bricks, cement, steel, all families contributed labour to dig the foundation and for the laying the pipeline. The work was completed in October. Piped water supply will be started once construction of all toilets and bathrooms with tap connections are completed. And that is a day the women of Phirikinali are eagerly waiting for.


Out of the total 78 households in Phirikinali, 51 households will be completing their toilet and bathrooms in the first phase. The rest of the households will complete theirs in the second phase. In October 2022, Gram Vikas partnered with Wipro Cares to implement the project Water Secure Initiative in six villages in two Gram Panchayats – Chandaka and Daruthenga in the Chandaka region in the periphery of Bhubaneswar on aspects of access to water, improved WASH behaviour, and water source sustainability. The project aims to bring water through taps in the six villages covering all the 470 households residing in these villages. 

Currently, 1440 villages across 27 districts of Odisha and Jharkhand have a toilet and bathing facility for every household, with water on tap. They have adopted safe sanitation and health practices and established a community monitoring system to ensure effective use of water and sanitation infrastructure.

The overhead water tank in Phirkinali village to cater to the water needs of fifty one households in the village.

Photograph by Alex Sam Thomas


Sasmita Jena, a Thematic Coordinator in Livelihoods in Chandaka collected information and data for the story.


Chandrika Patnaik leads content production within the Communications team in Gram Vikas.


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