By May, Anay Agarwal had already seen more filthy villages than he wanted to.
As project manager with the Quality Council of India (QCI), Agarwal, 33, was working with sanitation experts and the government to put together the 2016 Swachh Survekshan, India’s first-ever survey of sanitation standards. About 50 surveyors – all of them IIT and IIM students in their 20s – visited 75 districts across India’s hills and plains. At each stop, they dropped in at 36 randomly selected villages and made 32 house calls within them to check on toilet access and use, littering and stagnant water around the homes.
Data and photos were relayed digitally to Agarwal’s team of 40 in Delhi, where the information was processed.
The survey was 80% done and summer was at its peak by the time 13 reviewers reached Sindhudurg, a coastal district at the southern tip of Maharashtra.
“We’d seen a lot of Indian villages by then. Let’s say they didn’t paint a rosy picture of rural India,” Agarwal says. Sindhudurg, however, surprised the team. “We saw a marked difference,” he says. “The place looked clean and well-maintained, toilets were where they should be, stagnant water was missing and the people were surprisingly cooperative and well-informed.”
The QCI’s findings led the Indian government to declare Sindhudurg the cleanest district in the country, early this month. Five other districts in the state have placed within the top 10. The win comes with no medal, no prize money, but in Sindhudurg, there’s pride and palpable cheer. What there isn’t much of is surprise – Sindhudurg’s glory is no overnight success. It comes from 16 years of cleanliness efforts, overwhelming public participation and inventive sanitation initiatives.
Sindhudurg is different, says district collector Uday Choudhary, although he is the first to say he can’t take credit for that difference.
Choudhary has been collector here for less than a year, and was posted in Thane and Vidarbha before this.
In Vidarbha, he says, locals would scoff at talk of a link between sanitation and disease. “Here, people want to know why one kind of latrine system is better than another. They don’t need to be told why they need one in the first place.”
The sophisticated attitude is because sanitation efforts started early and developed steadily. Choudhary traces its genesis to the state government’s Sant Gadge Baba Village Sanitation Campaign (SGBVSC), launched in 2000-01, a time when one in five people had no access to a toilet. It popularised sanitation schemes using traditional balladeers, which also boosted the central government’s Total Sanitation Campaign a year later. Bike rallies strengthened the idea that sanitation was cool. Meetings were held near temples to connect with the religious; folk theatre and puppet shows hammered the message in. Toilet talk was no longer taboo.
By 2014, when the Swachh Bharat mission was launched, urging villagers to start adding toilets to their homes, Sindhudurg was already on its last lap – just 118 gram panchayats short of declaring the whole district ODF or Open Defecation Free. Their reached their target in April 2016, “just before the surveyors visited,” says Choudhary.
Shekhar Singh, the CEO of Sindhudurg’s zilla parishad for the last four years, says the district’s standards for cleanliness have long been higher than the national average. It helps that it gets heavy rain (about 3,200mm a year). “Compare this to a district like Beed, where there isn’t enough water to drink, and you understand why people are willing to build toilets here,” Singh says.
The area also has a balanced sex ratio (1,036 females per 1,000 males) and a high literacy rate of 85.5% against a national average of 74%.
Meet the people - and the kids - who are keeping Sindhudurg clean
“A high rate of migration to big cities like Mumbai and Pune also means that people are exposed to a different way of life,” says Jyoti Toraskar, a school teacher in Malwan taluka. Anil Bagal, the Zilla Parishad’s deputy chief executive officer adds that the cleanliness efforts aimed to remove the notion that cleaning up is a low-profile job. “People were told that sanitation was their responsibility; its casualties their own people,” he says.
But going clean doesn’t come easy. In 2005, digging a 5-sq-ft pit in Sindhudurg’s red, unyielding laterite rock could set a family back by Rs 3,500. Today it costs Rs 15,000. Singh points out that habitation patterns – homes scattered across terrains rather than nucleated villages – also made systems hard to track.
“Progress itself was a problem,” says Shrijivan Bhugaokar, sarpanch of Kumbharmath village. People used to burn what didn’t decompose. As the use of packaged foods rose, there were more wafer packets and gutkha sachets in the fire, causing health hazards. “Many lived off the garbage collection route, so disposal became a problem as well.”
So Singh held meetings with local recyclers. “No one had asked for our input before,” says Hanumant Ingale, who runs a recycling service set up by his father in Kankavli. “We told him we needed more collection spots, a place to sort garbage, and systems to let distant neighbourhoods pool their trash.”
Toilets were connected to biogas plants. Collateral-free loans (often with EMIs as low as Rs 110 per month) to build latrines, were instituted. Construction work was subsidised. For small homes, sewage tanks were modified to fit underground. Many homes received bright green dustbins for free so collection vans could find them more easily.
But nothing worked as well as peer pressure. Gram panchayats would display lists of residents who’d completed building their toilets. Latrines were seen as an aspiration for those with children in the cities, a convenience for the aged, a reptile-free space in the monsoons and a dignified option for women. Red, orange and green stickers were used to mark homes that had no toilet, weren’t using theirs or had complied.
LESSONS IN CLEANLINESS
If Sindhudurg started early, its residents start early too. Schools and anganwadis are a key driver in sanitation measures across the region. “Kids are very good at marketing. They help convince the parents and good sanitary practices get ingrained as childhood habits,” says Nilesh Samant, sarpanch of Kushewada village. Most schools use their noticeboards to congratulate a child whose family has built a toilet, encouraging competition.
One Kudal school even has kids write a letter to their parents, explaining why cleanliness and toilets are the pride of Sindhudurg, with instructions on segregation and using footwear and soap in the toilet.
Ingale says that many waste disposal schemes have worked because locals saw value in them. “When my father started the business, locals would want trash cleared more than they wanted to know what it contained,” says Ingale. “Now they know the price of a kilo of glass and paper.”
Next on Sindhudurg’s agenda is what Singh calls ‘ODF Plus’, a town with toilets, systems for menstrual health management, liquid waste processes and no malnutrition that is also plastic-free. “Thankfully, this is what the people want as well,” he says.