Sense and Sanitation in India

By Anjali Singh,Womens Feature Service

It could be any one of the thousands of sleepy villages that dot the rough rural outback of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state. But Shahpur Jot, in Baraich district, is by no means conventional, and it has a President’s Award to prove this.

In 2006, Shahpur Jot achieved total sanitation coverage. How did this poor, predominantly Muslim, village manage this? After all, according to Government of India projections, the country is unlikely to achieve its Millennium Development Goal of halving, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to basic sanitation. What did Shahpur Jot do right?

It all began with one woman in the village and one civil society organisation, the Baraich-based Development Association for Human Development (DEHAT), a UN Millennium Campaign partner. Recalls Jitendra Chaturvedi, Chief Executive, DEHAT, “I was shocked to see that the distance between the makeshift dry latrines that were in most homes earlier and the kitchen hearths was just three feet apart. What was worse, the excreta was disposed manually, with no proper sewage or plumbing. Sweepers had to perform this demeaning task. The filth was dumped in a nearby pond, which was just 30 feet deep and the dirty water inevitably seeped into drinking water sources, contaminating them as well.”

Change of any kind seemed impossible because those who had the highest stake in clean surroundings because it impacted directly on their lives and the health of the children – the women – could not play an active role in public life. Women observed ‘purdah’ and stayed within the four walls of their homes. Chaturvedi and his colleagues, however, were convinced that if Shahpur Jot had to be transformed, the women had to play a pivotal role.

So Chaturvedi approached Shakila Bano, 45, who was the ‘pradhan’ (village head) in 2000. She was reluctant at first but once she understood the import of DEHAT’s plans, she talked to other women in the village and got them to attend the initial meeting at the local ‘musafir khana’ (rest house). He recalls, “It was a strange sight. I was the only man standing amidst this sea of black burqa-clad women, who even refused to sit on chairs since tradition dictated that women could not take a position that was higher than men – literally! I thought to myself that more than the change in the surroundings we had to work for an attitudinal change – and Shakila Bano was the key to this.”

Today Shakila, sitting in her home in Shahpur Jot, recalls how she had to make a very important personal decision first, “I was chosen the ‘pradhan’ so I knew people trusted me and would follow what I say. But I also realised that it was a huge responsibility on my shoulders to work for the welfare of the village – one that could not be fulfilled if I remained in ‘purdah’. So I made the decision to step out of ‘purdah’. I gave up my ‘burqa’ when I went to the next public meeting. From then on I met all government officials visiting the village without a veil, and even went on inspections dressed in a salwar-kameez.”

She visited people’s homes without her ‘burqa’ to set an example, hoping all the while that the gamble would work and it would have a positive impact on the women. “The women gave me full support and joined in the campaign, even giving up the ‘purdah’ while they worked,” says the dynamic leader.

Once the idea that they could make a difference caught on, Shakila and her band of women were eager to do everything they possibly could to transform their living environs. The situation was indeed dismal. The open drains were full of blood and refuse from local slaughter houses and the pond was overflowing with faecal matter.

Slowly, the urge to see this village of 2,500 people clean and healthy became everybody’s goal. Shahpur Jot’s 300 homes all have a toilet today. In fact, one family which has a physically challenged daughter has built a special toilet with handles so that the child would have no problem in using it. The sewage system is similar to the flush toilets in urban homes, with septic tanks to collect the waste.

The impact of this initiative on the local administration was quite considerable. The authorities were taken aback when DEHAT informed the officers who came to inspect the sanitation facilities that it had cost a paltry Rs 500 to construct one toilet per home.

“The DM could not believe that it could be done so cheap. We assured him that it could even be done totally free. In a village that thrives on farming vegetables and fruits, each household contributed Rs 3,000-4,000 (US$1=Rs 46.8) for the toilets. We also received support from the government under the Samagra Gram Vikas Yojna (a state-funded scheme that gave grants to villages through the local MLAs) so that our campaign could carry on undeterred. A sum of Rs 10,00,000 was allocated for this purpose,” says Chaturvedi.

Better hygiene had an immediate impact on general well being, especially that of children. Medical bills of local families started coming down. Outbreaks of cholera, diarrhoea and jaundice, which were routine earlier, came down markedly. Gynaecological problems caused by poor sanitation and the inability of the women to relieve themselves whenever they wished to, because of the lack of privacy, increasingly became a thing of the past.

Eight Self Help Groups were created and women were informed about child care, personal hygiene, and how to help keep their surroundings clean. Discussions on these issues figured in the monthly meetings held in the village and a Health Day was observed in the local school, together with projects on the importance of proper sanitation.

Noor Alam, 42, the present pradhan of Shahpur Jot, who took over from Shakila in 2005, puts it this way, “Earlier we used spent thousands on medicines and doctors fees but since we cleaned up the village and ensured that every home had a toilet, cases of water borne diseases have come down considerably. In fact, one of the biggest problems we had faced earlier was the slaughtering of animals in the lanes of the village, which filled the open drains with blood and brought in swarms of flies. This was the first problem we tackled when we began our sanitation work. We banned open slaughter and covered up the drains.”

Change always brings in more change. Today, every girl in Shahpur Jot attends school. In order to encourage girls to study further, bicycles were bought and the girls trained to ride them. Many of the older girls now cycle together in groups to attend high school in an adjoining village. Interestingly, they have also taken a pledge not to marry into homes that don’t have their own toilets!

To Noor Alam, the biggest transformation has been at the attitudinal level, “Now women even come up to me directly and speak about issues like house allotments, BPL cards, and even scholarships for their children. I am touched by this new self-confidence.”

The recently released UN’s Millennium Development Goals Report, 2010, notes that most progress in sanitation has occurred in rural areas. Sanitation coverage in rural areas in South Asia has doubled from 13 per cent to 26 per cent between 1990-2008. But there is a very long way to go. The Report notes that South Asia, along with Sub-Saharan Africa, has the poorest access to sanitation in the world.

In such a scenario, Shahpur Jot’s efforts to create a brave new world for itself could prove inspiring for other villages in a region where poverty, illiteracy and orthodoxy continue to stymie progress.