An English-speaking, suit-clad man wearing rimless spectacles is not your idea of a typical sarpanch from a farming village in Nanded district, Maharashtra.
But Madhavrao Patil Shelgaonkar (64) was a picture of pride and confidence when narrated the story of how his village Shelgao Gauri transformed to become an example of good sanitation. Patil was speaking at a sanitation conclave held at Colombo on Sunday, organised by the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP)- South Asia and Department of Drinking Water and Supply, Government of India and the Sri Lanka water Board. The 3-day conclave is being attended by stakeholders from six South Asian countries.
His village, consisting mainly of sugarcane and cotton growers, was the winner of Government of India’s, Nirmal Gram Puraskar in 2006, where villages that achieve total sanitation (a toilet for every home) and can provide basic drinking facilities to the villagers are awarded with Rs 25 lakh.
“The first step is to say ‘mera gaon mahan’ (My village is great). Then you will automatically feel that ‘mera bharat mahan’(My India is great),” said Patil who has been undefeated as the head of his gram panchayat for the past 6 elections - 30 years.
“I remember, before 2003, people were not used to using toilets at all. It was never cultivated as a habit,” Patil said. Government representatives informed them about the direct relation between health and sanitation. When we realized that all the diarrhea cases in the village were related with the bad sanitation practices, we started spreading the message that although we can’t control death, we can control diseases, Patil says.
The villagers identified space, money and water as the three necessities to make this happen. “Constructing a toilet became a larger priority than buying a television or a mobile phone,” he said. Even after toilets were built, people still defecated in the open as a matter of habit. Villagers took turns and patrolled the suspected areas fined those who did not use toilets. All this invited huge distraught, but eventually things changed.
Dr Mallinath Kalshetti, deputy secretary, Rural Development and state coordinator of the total sanitation campaign says, “It is para-professionals like Patil who make a huge difference in this sector. It is not about the money or infrastructure, but political will and change in mindset at the village level which are huge challenges that we are hoping to meet all over the state.”