Not just hygiene, the mission to build toilets, under government of India’s Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) also improved people’s health.
“Very few cases of diarrhoea, vomiting and fever have been reported among people since we started using toilets in our village. The district commissioner had explained the health hazards of defecating in the open, and we can see the difference now that we are using proper toilets,” says Bornali Bassa, 34, a farmer from Choladhara village in the Sivasagar district of Assam.
Lakwa block in the district, which now has 8,506 households, previously had toilets in only 25% of households.
“Of these, barely 50% had sanitary toilets with proper sewage systems. The rest were merely bamboo-walled pits. Within a year of implementation of the programme, 5,319 toilets were constructed,” says Virendra Mittal, district commissioner, Sivasagar.
It took months of counselling and awareness-building before locals volunteered to build toilets in the area. Lakwa block is the first open-defecation-free (ODF) in the entire north east (except Sikkim), which the local administration achieved with the help of other stakeholders such as Unicef.
However, despite the positive response, Mittal fears old habits might die hard without external monitoring.
“Tea gardens are a vulnerable area as these workers have been defecating in open for ages. So we need to maintain a constant vigil, which is why we have created a nigrani committee in each village that takes surprise rounds to check compliance,” says Mittal.
Dulami block in Ramagarh district of Jharkhand was declared as the state’s first open-defecation-free block — an achievement in a state where more than 32% people in urban homes still relieve themselves in the open. Within a month, however, the locals have taken to the fields again. Reason: water shortage.
Large swathes of the state are reeling under water scarcity, making it difficult to implement the Swachh Bharat Mission. Block development officer Md Aslam conceded that water crisis has affected this semi-urban block’s ‘open-defecation-free’ status. “Most of the people are still using toilets but if the water crisis persists, you cannot stop them,” he says.
There are 12,400 houses in Dulami. Since May 2015, 10,567 toilets have been constructed here with assistance from Unicef and NGO Vikas Bharti. The locals carried out awareness drives, village committees were formed to fine offenders, and young women resolved to marry only men from homes with toilets.
This euphoria is just a memory now. “We are helpless. There is no way out for us,” says village head Parwati Devi, who was one of the women to give the clarion call of ‘padho vidyalay mein aur shauch karo shauchalay mein’ (study in school and relieve in toilets) last month.
HT travelled to one such village, Gitilor in the Noamundi block of west Singhbhum district, to access the situation. In several villages, toilets gifted by the government have been converted into storerooms for agriculture goods, forest wood and grains.
Most people are reluctant to drain several litres of water down toilets, choosing the forests and fields instead. Says Sukhram Hembrom, “Over 70 families in the village depend on the polluted Gitilor river and a couple of handpumps. Of the 15 hand-pumps, nine are useless and unfit for drinking. Given the situation, the toilets are useless.”
Walking from the river to the village carrying large pots of water in summer heat is far from easy. “The water we fetch from the river is for cooking and washing utensils and clothes. We can’t throw it down the toilet,” said a woman who did not want to be named.