The residents of Shankarpur, a remote village in Chhattisgarh, took a strange oath last year. They solemnly swore in the name of Maa Danteswari, a revered goddess in this part of the world, that they would never practice open defecation again.
Anyone who breaks the vow would face social exclusion and a penalty. The village school's principal VC Shukla narrates a familiar story that resonates across Bastar region in central India, Grassroots Features reports.
This has been the modus operandi of the district administration to ensure the use of toilets. Of the 90 panchayats (village councils) in Chhattisgarh that will receive awards for total sanitation by the Indian government called the Nirmal Gram Puraskar 2007, Bastar boasts of the maximum number of awardees - 27.
Bastar is essentially known as a remote and one of the most backward districts of the country. Hence, the quaint and idyllic images of village life in the scenic locales take one by surprise.
Kumharpara in Kondagaon block is not economically well off, but bears evidence of conscientious efforts on part of its residents to make it presentable. The streets are spotlessly clean and school children are well turned out.
According to Amrita Singh, who works in an aanganwadi (woman and child care centre), after the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) was initiated, mosquitoes have almost disappeared and children are healthier.
A study conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development finds a qualitative improvement in health in Nirmal Grams (clean villages), said Rajesh Singhie, district programme officer.
Bhuvanesh Chauhan, a resident of Shyampur village, says the 18 wards adjoining the village are already clamouring for assistance to build toilets in their villages. The euphoria is so high that many don't want to migrate anymore.
Sukli Poyam, the village head, said the construction was delayed by a month due to rains and was completed by December 2006.
But the real challenge was to make people use the new structures. Troubled by the continuation of open defecation, the panchayat instituted a penalty for defaulters and a reward for whistleblowers. As many as 22 people were caught and the public humiliation forced people to get used to toilets.
Panach Ram, who caught four people, is quite virulent. "I asked them how the village could become 'nirmal' (clean), if they don't start using the toilets," he says.
Asked how the prize money would be used, Chauhan pointed out that Shyampur required a proper drainage system.
In this regard, Shankarpur has devised an interesting plan. Village head Sonu Ram said the panchayat wants to employ self-help groups officially for cleaning the streets with the prize money for a sum of Rs 5,000.
Along with these groups, the Kishori Balika Samooh (adolescent girls' groups) has also contributed to the cause of cleanliness. The toilets have especially been a great relief to adolescent girls here. Pushpashanti, 16, said girls didn't have to miss classes during their menstruation cycles after the construction of toilets in schools.
The Total Sanitation Campaign has motivated the villagers to assert themselves. Their demand for tap water was recently met through their MP Sohan Kotay's development funds.
But it is not a rosy picture all along. Tugged away in forests, Narayanpur block's Binjli panchayat is faced with a unique dilemma. Like other villages, Binjli residents too are reluctant to talk about their problems to outsiders in front of government officials. They are also wary of appreciating the sanitation programme for it lies at the heart of the conflict area between the government and Maoist rebels.
When the villagers first heard about the programme their response was negative, says block member Sushil Kumar. But they eventually came around after women's self-help groups ran a door-to-door campaign to propagate its benefits.
Women and children even held a rally to further the cause. The work in Binjli and adjoining Telsi villages was completed in October-November 2006 with villagers contributing in terms of labour.
What has worked in the favour of the Total Sanitation Campaign in Bastar is that the district administration has treated it as top priority. Collector Ganesh Shankar Mishra claims the administration played upon sensitive issues to bring about a behavioural change.
"Apart from administering the Maa Danteshwari oath, we highlighted the fact that toilets accorded safety and respectability to women. The response was immediate, especially among women, who went on to lead the movement from the front," he said.