New Delhi: Even as the sanitation issue is garnering much attention, a 'toilet gallery' created out of Mahatma Gandhi's vision at a historic 'Harijan ashram' in the city to spread the message of social empowerment, remains a picture of utter neglect.
Located in north Delhi's Kingsway Camp area, in the front yard of the over 80-year-old Harijan Sewak Sangh, the gallery instead of getting its due recognition, ironically has been "dishonoured" as many passers-by choose to relieve themselves on its boundary wall.
"Gandhiji saw sanitation as a road to social empowerment. He saw creation of toilets as a means to abolish untouchability as sanitation work was something which the society thought should be done by low caste people."
"And, therefore he envisioned this "Shauchalaya Pradarshni (toilet gallery)" in the ashram's campus to educate people about sanitation and its positive effects on society," Secretary of Harijan Sewak Sangh Laxmi Dass told a news agency.
Though Gandhi could not live to see his vision brought to fruition, his work was converted into a tangible form at this gallery later by well-known sanitation activist Ishwarbhai Patel, he said.
Patel, driven by the Harijan Sangh's vision, had already played a major role in establishing the 'Safai Vidyalaya in Ahmedabad (now Environmental Sanitation Institute) in the 1960s.
"And, later as envisioned by Gandhi, Patel got the toilet gallery established in Delhi at the ashram later in the 1960s. Gandhiji wanted to show the people how the building of toilets around the country was changing society and also how to use excreta manure for biogas production among others," he said.
Dass said that today Gandhi has become a symbol of the 'Swachch Bharat Abhiyan' started by Narendra Modi government but "is it not sad that the man who is the face of this campaign, his (Gandhi's) own work in this area has been forgotten by people and the governments".
"We have tried to complain to the municipal corporation about people using the walls for open urination, and also to remove encroachment outside by hawkers and rickshaw-wallahs but everything has so far fallen on deaf ears," he said.
Talking about the gallery, he said the Sangh has a redevelopment plan ready but the maps have "not been cleared by the North Delhi Municipal Corporation."
"The fact that we have a 'toilet gallery' in our campus, it could be a major tourist attraction. We want to approach the Ministry of Tourism and propose a refurbishment plan for the ashram also," he said.
"We have proposed a complete refurbishment of the existing gallery. Also, an exhibition to show the evolution of a broom is also part of the scheme. We want to take Gandhi's idea closer to people, how he saw the role of a toilet in the society," Dass added.
The ashram was born out of the historic Poona Pact between Gandhi and Babasaheb Ambedkar in 1932. But the Sangh campus itself hasn't fared any better over
the several years, slipping slowly into complete obscurity due to "public apathy and lack of political patronage".
"People know Gandhi's birth and death places, but not his real battleground, where he engineered a social revolution," 83-year-old Ram Raj Prabhakar, a former employee of the ashram, said.
Gandhiji despised untouchability and saw manual scavenging as a prime reason for it and he founded the ashram to lend a conducive environment for the uplift of the oppressed classes or 'Harijans' as he called them.
"Yes, it is unfortunate that after sundown, the ashram plunges into darkness. We have an acute shortage of funds and owing to that we are not able to afford the electricity bill to run the lights in the campus, barring a couple of them," Dass said.
"Unlike the Gandhi memorial at the Birla House and the Rajghat here, it never enjoyed the kind of political patronage it should have. Maybe being an institution for the Dalits, it did not get much into mainstream."
"Also, the place does not find mention in the tourism literature and city guides either, unlike Birla House or Rajghat. The place has fallen right off the map," he said.
Spread over 27 acres of land in the historic Kingsway Camp area in north Delhi, the ashram has a towering "Dharma Stambh" and a beautiful but faded "Sarwa Dharma Sambhav Temple", both of which were constructed under the supervision of Gandhi.
The "Dharama Stambh" with its massive pedestal has inscriptions from the Vedas and Upanashidas, and Buddhist teachings inscribed on them.
"We want to develop, besides a refurbished toilet gallery, a Ayurveda centre and a hospital, revive the vocational training institute that ITI was earlier in the campus, a research and development centre for medicinal plants, among others," Dass said.
The campus also has memories attached with Kasturba Gandhi, who stayed here in a 'kutir' and where Gandhi also stayed later.
Besides, there is a library and exhibition centre where framed old photographs of Gandhi and people whom he worked with, have been displayed.
"We still hope to revive it in next financial year with our own funds even if we do not receive fund from outside," Dass said.