Feb 2, 2009

India - A silent revolution


The Total Sanitation Campaign is taking clean sanitation to rural households, making a quality difference to their lives.

Two silent revolutions are sweeping rural India. One, of mobile telephones, primarily pushed by the aggressive private service providers, and the second, that of sanitation driven by the rule-bound, governmental agencies with non-governmental organis ations taking the campaign forward in spite of the arguments of the future beneficiaries.

But, while people believe that a mobile telephone is a necessity rather than a luxury, sanitation is a non-priority. If the government really wants to do something for the poor, it might as well spend on food, health, education or even roads. Why sanitation? This is the common argument used against spending on sanitation.

The logic may well be true for a family living below the poverty line when it is asked to shell out money for constructing a toilet or install a hand pump, but little do they realise that hygiene is directly related to health and environment. If the World Health Organisation (WHO) figures are to be believed, 80 per cent of the diseases are caused because of lack of safe water and sanitation. Five of the 10 top diseases of children are also related to water and sanitation.

Heavy price

Globally, diarrhoea causes 5,000 child deaths every day with the number in India standing at 1,000. As far as the non-health implications are concerned, 443 million school days are lost each year due to poor hygiene and sanitation. It also affects girls’ enrolment in school. Only four of the 10 girls who enrol complete eight years of schooling in India because of lack of separate toilets and water which is a necessity, particularly after they attain puberty. Lack of facilities also reinforces insecurity among women — risking their health, pride and dignity besides harassment. In India, 35 per cent of rural schools do not have toilets and 20 per cent do not have drinking water facilities. Over 6.6 million people still defecate in the open as only 54 per cent of the rural population has toilet facilities.

Changing situation

Thankfully, the situation is fast changing now. It was West Bengal that took the lead in initiating sanitation drives in its villages and is targeted to become the first State in the country to achieve total sanitation by 2012. The State already has 76 per cent households covered, as against 27 per cent in 2001 when the sanitation drive began. Already 17 blocks have been declared as “Open Defecation Free” and awarded the Nirmal Gram Puraskar under the Total Sanitation Campaign of the Rural Development Ministry. All the blocks have Rural Sanitary Marts that, besides selling sanitary ware generate employment for over 1,800 women across the State. Over 90 per cent schools have sanitation and 94 per cent have safe water supply.

The Total Sanitation Campaign was initiated in 2001 with fund commitment up to Rs. 14,000 crore, covering almost all the districts in the country. The Nirmal Gram Puraskar awards were also initiated in 2003 to promote the concept of sanitation. The result is that there is a competition among the villages to receive the award given to Open Defecation Free village, sustained for at least three years.

However, this did not come about without an effort. Behavioural barriers are a major hurdle as the benefits are not widely understood. “When I first approached the villagers in 2001 to supplement the government funds to construct a toilet in their homes, it seemed an impossible task. Ultimately I had to promote sanitation and hygiene habits among the children at the local anganwadi centre and school who then influenced their families,” explains Mashqura Begum, the driving force behind the sanitation campaign in the Muslim-dominated Hadipur Jhikra-I Gram Panchayat. It took her several years to convince women about the benefits of having a toilet before they agreed to pay. But now the village has full sanitation coverage.

The Total Sanitation Campaign has also changed the face of predominantly-Tribal dominated East Singhbhum district of Jharkhand. The Government Middle School at Manpur in Potka block claims to be the first in the State to have an incinerator for disposal of sanitary waste. Constructed a few months ago on an experimental basis, with the school providing the raw material, better sanitation facilities have shown a quantifiable result by way of an increase in the attendance of adolescent girls. It is the 11-member Bal Sansad or Child Cabinet in the school that pushed the concept forward and is taking an active part in the maintenance of toilets and disposal facilities. It has set up a “Bal Kosh” (Children’s Fund) with donation and the money is spent on fulfilling the requirements of the students.

Joint effort

Besides the local administration, several non-government organisations including Gram Vikas Kendra (Tata group), Mahila Mandals, Mahila Samakhya Society, anganwadi centres and United Nations’ Children Fund (UNICEF) have all joined hands for this common cause. Each one of these agencies contribute in their own way, either by way of giving funds, implementing the schemes or providing technical support and capacity building.

“Our next target is to start a sanitary manufacturing unit,” says Smita Gupta who heads the Jharkhand Mahila Samakhya Society. The Society is now working out ways to ensure that there is enough demand for sanitary napkins so that the cost of the product comes down and is affordable for the poor. The Society intends at least one such unit in each block as has been done in some districts in Tamil Nadu where the programme is a success and the sanitary napkins are sold through the vending machines.

Despite these achievements, there are challenges like the upgradation of basic toilet units and sustainability. New initiatives like biogas linked toilets and recycling of waste are still to catch on. The practice of safe disposal of solid and liquid waste at household and community level needs to be promoted. Importantly, reaching the difficult areas such as hills, islands and remote tribal habitations continues to be an issue.

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