Here’s how Gram Vikas’ Joe Madiath is bestowing dignity on the lives of rural communities in Orissa

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After travelling for eight days Jagriti Yatra train reached Orissa from where it will  head north. It was a great occasion to continue exploring India in its great diversity, but more than that, it was a great occasion to meet a role model for social enterprise sector in the country: Joe Madiath, founder and executive director of Gram Vikas, an organisation which uses common concerns for water and sanitation to unite and empower rural communities.

We had the chance to hear a great talk from Joe and to visit villages where Gram Vikas has made an  impact. One of the most interesting part of this story is Joe’s story. He was a very smart kid who could have achieved everything in his life, but his  passion to improve lives of people led him on a different path. Incredibly, when he was just 12 he helped organize young workers employed by his own father, helping them to fight for better conditions. As a student he studied English Literature in the University of Madras, where he was elected President of the Students’ Union in Loyola College. During his studies he also cycled solo across India getting insights about India’s poverty and visiting  Orissa for the first time where “I liked the simplicity of the people and I was moved by their stories. In my subconscious I understood that if I could get a chance I would come to Orissa again,” says Joe.

And the opportunity came  in 1971, while he was leading 400 volunteers in West Bengali to manage a relief camp for refugee from Bangladesh Liberation War. At the same time a cyclone devastated Orissa, but was no relief measure in place for  the disaster victims.  Joe,  together with some other volunteers, decided to move to Orissa and help  with relief work. He decided to stay on in the region and implemented biogas projects in  villages. After a few years when he was well-versed with the problems of the region he decided to start Gram Vikas.

There were lot of problems in Orissa, but the one that completely shocked Joe was the fact that more than 50% of the diseases were due to poor quality of water. This was due to open defecation and general water pollution. “If we could give them clean drinking water, they will have better health and 18% of their disease could be eliminated. Better sanitation can lead to better quality of  drinking water,” says Joe.

Joe’s journey, however, was not smooth. “In 1992, we brought a revolutionary idea: rural women should have water supply 24 hours in toilets and no woman should have  to take more than five steps for a glass of water. I dreamed of equality in access to drinking water across all India, but when we tried to convince the government to go forward I was almost insulted. But the greatest satisfaction I have is that after a lot of perseverance, I have made my dream come true.  I was invited to be the chairman of planning commission for water and sanitation,”  shares Joe proudly.

The impact of Gram Vikas is very visible in the villages we had the chance to visit. More than 77,000 people and 1033 villages have access to clean water and sanitation thanks to the social enterprise. When we asked  Joe about the impact of his work he answered sharing a sentence that a 70-year-old woman had once told him, “I died twice a day when I was defecating in public. I felt so ashamed. Today my dignity is restored,” remarks Joe.

The business model of Gram Vikas works on  a PPP (Public Private Partnership) where the government is able to cover 80-90% of the money needed. “We  also have some arrangements with steel company to procure  low cost materials.  But I like to think that the main contribution of our company is  the people. They are the ones making the difference,” says Joe.

The main challenge that Joe and his team face is to inculcate the habit of sanitation.  “Sanitation is a culture. People have been defecating in the open   all their life and it is difficult to convince them to move to  a 3×4 room toilet. This culture has to  change and can be done through change agents. Today, only five-10% of the villages have adopted our system,” adds Joe.

This article is part of the Jagriti Yatra series: a collaboration between SocialStory and Jagriti Yatra. Alessio Pieroni is on the Jagriti Yatra to share stories from the journey. Watch this space for more updates.