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The 35-year-old Kailash Basfore is a sweeper by profession and an actor too. He is part of the Harijan Para Slum Folk Theatre Group that periodically performs plays on the benefits of sanitation in the 52 slums dotting Kalyani, a township near Kolkata, West Bengal.

Local municipal health officer, Dr Kasturi Bakshi made this possible by motivating Kailash and others of his team to initiate a sanitation programme in the Harijan para slum. Kailash led the movement towards 100% sanitation first within his own slum and later in several slums across Kalyani.

When Dr Bakshi first visited this slum, housing 110-odd sweeper families, the faecal odour was unbearable. The first challenge was to motivate this community, primarily comprising sweepers who made a living by keeping other peoples’ toilets clean, to keep their own surroundings sanitary. Says Kailash, “It was ironical that we toiled to clean toilets in others’ homes but ourselves lived amidst total squalor with no thought of sanitation.”

“Poor sanitation not only pollutes the environment, it is a hazard for human health and an infringement upon human dignity, safety and privacy, especially of women. It reduces economic benefits and aggravates poverty, weakening the foundation of social development,” Dr Bakshi points out.

Under the CLTS project that began in 2006 with the support of the Kolkata Urban Services for the Poor (KUSP), slumdwellers like Kailash were told that there would be no subsidy for the construction of toilets; the goal was not to merely increase the number of toilets but to ensure an open defecation-free environment. “We told them that habits had to change to achieve this goal. It was behavioural change that was important, not the model of the toilet,” elaborates Dr Bakshi.

The concept of sanitary toilets was introduced to the residents. With just an ordinary pan, a pit and a water seal that prevents visibility of excreta, foul smell, access to insects and animals and faecal oral contamination, these toilets can be constructed at a nominal cost of just `250-300 (US$1=`45.2). “The main motivation for us, besides the low cost was the fact that it promised to reduce medical expenditure if everybody used it,” says Kailash.

He put up the first toilet in his home and then started convincing others, especially the youth in the community. With the success at Harijan Para, Kailash and his friends decided to support Dr Bakshi in her bid to make all the 52 slums – with a population of 48,167 – open defecation free. The project cost was just `2.50 lakh.

Deepak Basfore, another community activist, recalls how an aged man, Sambhu Basfore, resisted building a toilet till the last. Finally, the slum children took to whistling at him whenever he attempted open defecation. “He was embarrassed and shamed into getting his own toilet,” he says. Other slum dwellers became interested when Harijan Para won an Inter Slum Cleanliness Competition.

“Kalyani was declared an open defecation free (ODF) city in 2008. But this was not enough. Mass awareness to sustain the 100% sanitation was required,” says Dr Bakshi. The toilets were up. Using them and maintaining them became a priority. It was then that the idea of creating a folk theatre group for advocacy emerged. Dr Bakshi got some enthusiastic community members, which includes four talented women, to form the Harijan Para Slum Folk Theatre Group that stages street plays and stage shows to spread awareness on the benefits of sanitation, relief from diseases and ending open defecation.

For residents like Kailash, Bibha and Sandhya, it was a proud moment when recently a woman researcher from Spain, who came visiting Harijan Para to conduct a survey, told them that their toilets were cleaner than those at the Indian Museum in Kolkata!

The group pens the script themselves and also doubles up as actors. Saturday evenings are dedicated to rehearsing. However, to maintain this progress some additional incentives have been provided to the slum dwellers. Like giving open defecation free slums priority for other development work, such as building roads, water pumps, drains, and so on, and installing solar street lamps. Community leaders like Kailash have also been taken to see some of the more progressive Mumbai slums.

Even the Kalyani University, that owned the land on which Harijan Para had illegally come up, has donated it to the slum dwellers as an acknowledgement of the community’s efforts in the sanitation drive.

The outcome of these efforts has been significant. The immediate impact was in terms of disease rates, which fell sharply from 347 cases in 2005-06 the figure came down to 124 cases in 2007-08. It has fallen further in the last two years.

Now the CLTS team, comprising eight women health workers from each slum, meets every Sunday to share information and discuss solutions under the leadership of Dr Bakshi. “We work as a group to find solutions for any emerging sanitation problems. Several new public toilets have been constructed in the township on our suggestion. A new ward has been incorporated into Kalyani now and we are reviewing the sanitation situation there at present,” shares Sandhya Sarkar, a health worker and team member from the Simanta area.

Adds Bibha Mondal, 43, from Taltala sub-centre, “Whenever new houses come up in any of the slums, our priority is to check whether a toilet is being put up or not. Sustained awareness campaigns are the only way to ensure that sanitation standards are maintained.”

Ajitha Menon

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