Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVIII No. 6, July 1-15, 2018

Twelve women’s groups, one dream, total sanitation

Ever since the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) was launched in India, there have been many innovative ways in which communities have taken ownership of Mission Sanitation that aims to eradicate open defecation by 2019. In select blocks of Tamil Nadu’s Dindigul District, village councils, local women and technology have come together seamlessly to not only ensure that every home has a toilet, but that families are indeed making use of them. KIRTHI JAYAKUMAR tells this story.

In May 2016, the Gandhigram Trust, a resource agency with the Government’s Department of Rural Development, set up an online platform to position Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in digital space. This is one among a range of capacity-building efforts, the Trust has introduced to attain the targets set under the sanitation campaign. The virtual platform has been instituted with an idea to facilitate the implementation of the scheme and to build a system of receiving regular updates to monitor its progress. Of course, central to its execution and success are feisty village women, who have been trained to become proactive agents of change for their communities.

The Trust had started working on the sanitation project in Athoor, Nilakkottai, Bathlakundu, Reddiarchatram and Vadamadurai Blocks in 2014 with the objective of creating model villages that focus on the establishment of competent waste management systems with strong community participation. Specifically, the idea was to get built 12,000 individual household latrines, or IHHLs, in the region. To get the ambitious operation off the ground, 12 all-women clusters were created and then trained to talk to families about the benefits of building toilets and keeping their surroundings clean.

Talking about the reasons for choosing women to lead the initiative, K. Shivakumar, secretary, Gandhigram Trust, says, “The Trust formed these clusters because women know the ins and outs of their panchayats, the community’s needs, and where the gaps in service delivery lie. Each group is responsible for four or five Gram Panchayats. They enjoy a good rapport with Government officials which allows them to speed up the process of toilet construction and resolve any related issues on the ground. At the same time, they keep in constant touch with the villagers and are ready to clarify all their doubts on schemerelated matters on real-time basis.”

Before the clusters were formally formed, the Trust had held a series of discussions with the Panchayat as well as Block level officials. Acknowledging the pivotal role the Panchayats play in taking the project forward, Shivakumar says, “The village councils have been the key activators. They work together with the women to identify beneficiaries, disburse funds and spread awareness on toilet construction.”

Indeed, it’s only when there is availability of adequate, proper infrastructure along with sufficient understanding among the people that total sanitation can become a lived reality. Whereas the first can be attained with some concerted efforts and funding, often it’s the widely-held regressive attitudes that end up playing spoilsport. Observes Ushree Mukhopadhyay, an independent researcher who studies the interplay of socio-psychology and development, “Most times, people don’t know how to use a toilet. It’s all very well to suggest that we must use toilets and, therefore, establish them, but in several parts of rural India, communities have been defecating in the open for years together. This has made it difficult for them to understand the confines of a toilet and what they have to use it for. It is vital, therefore, to educate them.”

All the aspects have been covered under the Trust’s project, which effectively combines infrastructure development, awareness generation and monitoring. “In order to improve the sanitation conditions in their Panchayats, the women’s groups are going all out to raise awareness on the various Government entitlements, the Trust’s revolving fund assistance, setting up school health committees, and so on. Regular meetings ease the process of purchasing materials for construction as well as the actual building. For those who are not in the know, we have published a handbook on Construction of low cost IHHL, and we also make it a point to commemorate occasions like the World Toilet Day to spread a positive message on sanitation. The online app for data collection has been developed for efficient monitoring,” elaborates Shivakumar.

The Gandhigram Trust has been able to initiate such activities with financial and technical support from the Bengaluru-based foundation, Arghyam, which, besides offering revolving funds and interest-free loans for the construction of IHHLs, has developed the software for the special monitoring app. The software is equipped to collect data with fields such as the name of the Panchayat, name of the beneficiary, survey numbers, date of application received, type of construction, the source of construction, loan details such as the total amount and dates of disbursement, the date of completion of construction, photographs taken after completion, total cost of the unit, date of repayment and the date on which the subsidy was received.

Shivakumar explains, “We have given each of the 12 clusters mobile phones pre-loaded with the app. Members have been instructed to fill in three forms – the first one before construction, the second during construction and the third on completion. We have been checking the progress at each stage. So far, three blocks and a total of 60 Panchayats have been covered.”

When the smart phones were distributed, two software experts interacted with the cluster women to take them through the basic operation and its applications. Arghyam’s technical team also taught them how to collect and enter the relevant data, and how to upload and update it on line. The collected, the data is transmitted via internet to a central server. “When collected over a period of time and from various Gram (village) Panchayats, this kind of information gives a clear picture of the bottlenecks in the system, backed by hard numbers. The centralised server even has an in-built tool to produce charts, graphs and other pertinent visualisations,” adds Shivakumar.

Thus far, this app has proved to be very useful; it’s been able to chart the progression of sanitation work taking place at the grass roots. Over the past year, the trust has reached out to households in 881 villages and lent financial and technical assistance for the construction of 3176 latrines, even as 2576 more are being built.

Clearly, the plan of roping in women and technology to achieve 100 per cent toilet coverage is working well. “Looking at the wonderful way in which the sanitation intervention has rolled out, Panchayats that don’t come under the project have approached us for help in improving conditions in their respective areas. For us, that’s a heartening development and we are gearing up to take things forward,” signs off Shivakumar. – (Courtesy: Vidura and Women’s Feature Service.)

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