In the last few years, many states in the country have witnessed an increase in the number of newly constructed toilets. However, several hundreds of these have remained unused or are being used by many for multiple purposes other than the reason they have been constructed for.
Some people cite genuine reasons like unavailability of water for not using toilets, while for some, the saying ‘old habits die hard’ holds true. While the problem persists, there are a few examples of such initiatives being effectively implemented.
Halgara village in Latur district stands as a perfect example of successful NGO-public partnership, with support from the government, which has helped in bringing a significant transformation in the sanitation and hygiene status here. What stands tall here are a few examples set by some courageous villagers, who changed their perceptions and have been an inspiration for the rest to follow.
“As we enter the village, the change is evident, the stench, which was a dominant feature here a year ago has vanished, as open defecation has stopped considerably,” said Datta Patil, who is a native of Halgara, but currently based out of California, USA. Datta, saddened by the sanitation status in his village, took a deep interest in implementing sanitation project a year ago here.
Patil is associated as a volunteer with Overseas Volunteers for a Better India (OVBI), which is based in United States.
The evident change in Halgara stems from the groundwork of OVBI volunteers like Datta Patil, his team and partners conducted before actual construction of the toilets. An extensive study of schemes helped to underscore the lacunas which were responsible for their failure in other states, while the team also conducted a ground survey to arrive at perfect solutions.
While the OVBI team realised that generating enthusiasm about building toilets was relatively easy but pursuing them to get into the process of construction and its subsequent regular use were crucial challenges. To overcome it, the team sprang into action by generating an awareness campaign to understand their point of view.
Datta, who is passionate about the cause, explained that their volunteers made the people aware of the adverse effects of open-air defecation as a one of the responsible factors for infections leading to a number of diseases which they are prone to every year.
“Since covering over 1,500 households of Halgara would have been an arduous task, the team planned out a schedule for visits which was followed by groups of shop owners, anganwadi and school teachers, local leaders, etc,” said Amit Deshmukh, who was part of the sanitation project.
The awareness programme conducted by the field team with the help of villagers proved catalyst in changing the approach of people towards open defecation. “This plan worked out because each group made a unique impact on theses villagers, as it had people from diverse backgrounds. A shopkeeper refused to sell goods to those families without a toilet, thus compelling villagers to take up the responsibility,” explained Amit. “The construction cost for each toilet was between Rs 25,000 to Rs 29,000. While the beneficiaries contributed only Rs 5,000, government subsidy under the Swachh Bharat Mission and funds raised by the NGO were used to construct the toilets,” added Datta.
“Due to the intervention by OVBI, the villagers could build quality toilets equipped with tiles, tap-tank, light connection, having invested only Rs 5,000, without bothering to follow with the government for subsidy amount,” added Amit. “Trained labourers from Vidarbha were employed for the work as it was observed that construction of toilets was not considered as an auspicious work and hence, local workers refrained from working on festivals, fairs, etc affecting the schedule,” said Datta.
“While construction activity was in full swing, some heartwarming cases surfaced in the meantime. Even though the NGO and government scheme helped fund part of the construction of toilets, the amount of Rs 5,000 was huge for villagers from a humble background. One lady was so much determined to construct the toilet that she went ahead and sold her ‘mangalsutra’ to fund it, while another lady took a loan,” Datta added.
Mangalbai Jadhav, who used to walk 2 km daily in the morning due to non-availability of toilet facilities, said, “Going to work after such a tiring ordeal had been challenging at the age of 55.” Building toilets, being an expensive affair, was a distant dream for her. However, after meeting Amit, who was not like a typical government officer, she could see hope. “I had to invest Rs 5,000, which was a huge amount for me, I was convinced that selling my ‘mangalsutra’ can help me build a toilet. This will help me save a good one hour and increase my productivity,” she added.
Datta explained how one family made their toilet a part of their celebrations. Lakshman Gaikwad was all set to play pranks at Amit when he met him for the first time. However, within no time, Amit could skillfully convince him of how having a toilet at home could benefit his grandparents. “I paid the sum of Rs 5,000 on the same day. I felt ashamed that Amit and his team, who were outsiders, made sincere efforts to create awareness against age-old misconceptions about toilets,” Lakshman said, adding, “I took upon myself to demonstrate by my behaviour that a toilet is as clean as any part of the house. To break the stereotype thought pattern. I celebrated my son’s birthday in the newly constructed toilet at my home.”
Within a year, those villagers who had been avoiding the task started feeling left out, since there were very few who didn’t have a toilet at home. So they were in a hurry to register themselves for the same. “One of the villagers explained, he felt ashamed of going out in open, while others used the toilets,” said Amit. As watershed development work was carried out in Halgara, water was made available to the villagers. Awareness campaigns also ensured people understand the importance of maintaining the toilets clean.
One year after the construction work of toilets began, children, women and elders are now accustomed to the usage, while the youths use the facility only at night. Dr Madhav Bhandare, medical officer at Public Health Centre, Halgara, said how he has witnessed a decrease in water and food-borne diseases in the last one year.
These villagers left behind their social behaviour that believed in relieving in the open is more virtuous and wholesome. Datta Patil, Amit Deshmukh and their team have been real change-makers, by not just transforming Halgara into open defecation free zone but they could stage an attack at the threshold of the traditional oppressive mindset towards women’s safety, hygiene and sanitation, and cultural stubbornness, which has been an arduous task for them. Their efforts have paid rich returns as it has benefited children and old people.