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When Jasbir Kaur, 62, of Khanpur Koliya village in Thanesar block, Kurukshetra district, Haryana, was elected the Mahila Mandal Pradhan (leader of the community-based women’s organisation) in 2006, her son Balbir was happy for her but not surprised. His father had been ‘sarpanch’ (village council head) for 10 years and his mother had become a matriarchal figure for the villagers.

Balbir presumed that as the elected leader of the Mahila Mandal, his mother would, at the most, be engaged with the village women in discussions revolving around small schemes to generate income laced with local gossip. But he was in for a surprise.

One night, on his way into the village from work, Balbir was horrified to see his mother and four other village women – armed with whistles and torches – in hot pursuit of a hapless male running with a large plastic bottle of water in hand.

Confronting her, Balbir learnt that the Mahila Mandal had taken up the challenge of making their Gram Panchayat (GP, a democratically elected village level local government) open-defecation free (ODF). To reach their goal, along with various other initiatives, Jasbir Kaur and her group have formed ‘Nigrani Samitis’. The ‘samitis’, or watch groups of 35 women, fanned out to keep a watch on roadsides and open fields every day from 4 to 7 am and again from 7 to 11 pm.

Not to be left behind, around 200 children also formed the ‘Swasth Sainik’ (Health Soldiers) groups, earlier this year. Every Sunday these children create community awareness about the importance of sanitation and hygiene habits. They march along the village roads with caps and banners, raising slogans in favour of household toilets. The exercise is also geared towards creating future leaders who will sustain the rural community-driven Total Sanitation Programme, a demand-led sanitation campaign, where safe sanitation is converted into a felt need by creating awareness.

As a result of the efforts of the Mahila Mandal, Khanpur Koliya was awarded the Nirmal Gram Puraskar (or Clean Village Prize) in October 2008. Out of a total of 364 panchayats, 108 in Kuruskhetra district have already received this prize.

As part of their strategy to create community demand for safe sanitation and bring about behavioural change, the women of Khanpur Koliya decided to arouse a sense of shame among open defecators. The women would direct a torch light on those caught in the act in the open, pulling them up – something that Balbir had seen his mother doing. Furthermore, if the culprits persisted with their customary habits, the women gave them the customary bottle of water to wash after defecation and urged them in motherly tones to go ahead and cover the fresh excreta with soil. They would also spread ‘dupattas’ and beseech violators to defecate on the fabric rather than dirty their village roadsides, which they themselves swept every morning. The women implemented such a strategy until every household got the message of the importance of keeping clean.

When it came to women defaulters, the Mandal raised other issues: “You painfully hold your urge to relieve yourselves until evening, suffer cramps and unspeakable misery. Surely you know a toilet in the house would put an end to all this?”, they said.

Santosh Rani, 40, an ‘anganwadi’ worker (village level child health worker), who has played a leading role in this behavioural change strategy, explained to the women how water and vector borne diseases like diarrhoea, dysentery, typhoid, worm infestation and polio, malaria, hepatitis are the fallout of open defecation. She informed the local women that these diseases are especially very dangerous for their toddlers and that installing toilets would save on the money and energy spent on treating diseases.

The community soon realised that open defecation was indeed a health hazard but the issue of funding to build toilets persisted with some families. Of the total 480 households, 255 Below Poverty Line (BPL) households in Khanpur Koliya had to contribute Rs300 each, even after getting government subsidy. For the reluctant ones, Jasbir Kaur personally paid Rs15, 000 up front. “Let their toilets be build, they will repay me later,” she said. Each toilet costs Rs1,000 to Rs1,200.

Additional District Collector (ADC) of Kurukshetra Sumedha Kataria led the campaign and talked to schoolchildren, teachers and women’s groups in the initial stages of motivation building.

Over time, toilets came up in each house, some with tin doors, some with an old blanket strung across the entrance. Families that were really hard up got community toilets in blocks of four from panchayat funds. Together, the women, the ADC, the Mahila Mandal along with anganwadi workers, teachers, children with the men following – ensured that not even one child would have an excuse to soil the village streets and fields.

Manipadma Jena

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