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Women ‘purify’ a temple town in Kerala

The scenic Chottanikara Panchayat, 18km off Ernakulam, Kerala, was once a garbage-strewn, polluted and unsanitary temple town. Today, it is a model ‘panchayat’ (village council), hailed across India for winning the Nirmal Gram Award, awarded by the Government of India in 2007. The credit for this transformation rests on the fragile shoulders of a group of women led by Panchayat President Alice George, 43.

Hordes of pilgrims visit Chottanikara every day which increases during the Sabarimala season. The debris strewn all around and the entire town & village would turn in to a virtual garbage dump, covered with plastic waste and reeking of faeces. Further, only a few homes in Chottanikara had latrines and open-air defecation have been adding to the pollution.

What triggered the cleanliness movement in Chottanikara was an attack of Chikunguniya, three years back. Many even suffered from elephantiasis. Then, Alice was the Panchayat President of Chottanikara with its population of 22,300 people. Chottinikara already had a well-organised Kudumbashree network in every ward – 123 Kudumbashree units are spread across 13 wards, with 4,650 women members. Kudumbashree is the state poverty eradication mission of the government of Kerala. The aim of the programme is to eradicate poverty through concerted community action under the leadership of local governments.

The panchayat first launched a mosquito eradication programme, beginning with a clean-up of the city. Women members led by Alice ventured into the streets and vacant places shrouded in plastic and other waste. Simultaneously, they also started spraying the entire panchayat with medication aimed at killing mosquitoes. The women also purchased a vehicle, learnt driving and started collecting garbage. The panchayat then decided to ban the use of plastic bags and substitute them with eco-friendly carry bags. This benefited the Kudumbashree housewives, who set up a manufacturing unit to produce carry bags, which they sold to every nearby shop and office.

The women were divided into eight member groups to clean up the place. The garbage was separated into biodegradable and plastic waste. The biodegradable waste was treated and converted into bio fuel, which today is used in every home in Chottanikara. “It helps us to cook our rice and boil one pot of water. It effects a substantial saving in gas,” observes Tresa, a Kudumbashree member.

The entire cleaning operation was to cost lakhs of rupees and the impoverished panchayat did not have the means to launch such a programme. But the never-say-die Alice got in touch with the Cochin Oil Refinery, located a little distance away, and convinced the management of the necessity of cleaning up the town. The company saw merit in the argument and forked out the necessary funds. They also offered to buy 5,000 carry bags from the Chottanikara Kudumbashree every month.

Alice and the panchayat have ensured that Chottanikara is extremely clean today, with no plastic rubbish and no garbage on view. Its waterways are free of ugly flotsam and jetsam – unlike in neighbouring Ernakulam. The women even cleaned up Vijayaraghavakulam, a perennial water source as well as a canal, making clean water – supplied through three tanks erected by the panchayat – available to every household. And all this within three years – Alice became the panchayat president in August 2005.

Today, only the hilltop homes are deprived of water supply, a problem the panchayat plans to address by building water tanks exclusively for their use. The panchayat also made available a loan to build latrines in every home. A lump sum of 2,000 was provided at the outset, with the rest being managed through Kudumbashree loan schemes.

Alice also managed to remove slums from the area and erected homes for the homeless. For this, she sought help from an Irish woman, Mary McCormack, who is the head of Ireland-based Assissi Charitable Trust. Alice approached Mary at Kochi through a friend and she offered to build 12 houses for the homeless. Alice also collected funds and built homes for slum-dwellers, some of whom were on the verge of giving up.

Alice also constructed a permanent ‘anganwadi’ for the village. The ‘anganwadi’ had earlier functioned in a rented building. Future plans include an electric crematorium, which is seen as another step in the anti-pollution drive, despite objections from many quarters.

Alice heads the panchayat but she leads the Kudumbashree women as well, enriching them in the process and equipping them to keep their town clean. The Kudumbashree have a book-making unit, a snack-making unit, a rice and masala powder making mill, goat and poultry culture units, a tailoring unit and even a brazier unit that caters to shops in the neighbourhood.

Visitors to Chottanikara can see women with brooms sweeping the roads and pavements at the break of dawn. Garbage is divided into biodegradable and non-biodegradable categories by the residents themselves and Kudumbashree women visit every home to collect it. The women are paid 50 per head for garbage collection. Hotel waste is also collected by them.

The panchayat was understandably ecstatic when news that it had been selected for the coveted Nirmal Award came in. Among its most prized possession is a photograph of its dynamic president receiving the Nirmal Gram Award from Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the then President of India.

Says Alice, whose tenure ended in November 2008, “We did not even know of the existence of the Nirmal Award. The women here were only concerned about ensuring clean air, garbage-free roads and public spaces and clean drinking water, apart from latrines in every home. We joined hands to achieve the almost impossible and have gained a place on the national map. This has only encouraged us to try and achieve more.”

Leela Menon, Women’s Feature Service

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