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Toilets In Tamil Nadu: A Silent Revolution In The Making

02/03/2017 11:47 AM IST | Updated 09/03/2017 8:52 AM IST

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By Manohar Rao*

Alagammal thought a toilet at her home would free up her time that otherwise went in going out far in search of cover for relieving herself every day. Privacy was a big concern for her and her adolescent daughter. A toilet would secure them the privacy they yearned for.

She and her husband are daily-wage earners in Pittalaipatti village in Dindigul district. While they own a small piece of dry land, it yields barely enough to make ends meet. With the central government-sponsored MGNREGA now operational across the country, they are no longer at the mercy of the landlord for their daily wages. They have also heard about the government's advertisements about the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) encouraging people to build toilets.

More than 25,000 households have built toilets in these five blocks in the past three years increasing the toilet coverage from 42% to 60%.

For Alagammal, the journey of getting a toilet of their own began by convincing her husband of the dire need to have one on their premises. She learnt about the scheme when a group of social workers from an NGO, including a girl from her own village, interacted with the MGNREGA workers. The ask was simple: fill up an application form requesting assistance in building a toilet, which would then be forwarded to the secretary of the village panchayat.

The turnaround was quick. She heaved a sigh of relief when the toilet was built in two months. The girl from the village, Alagammal soon realised, was the swachhta doot (sanitation messenger) appointed by the panchayat. She made several visits to Alagammal's house, enquired about her preparedness and made arrangements for interest-free short-term credit (since Alagammal had raised the issue of access to credit as the SBM subsidy would be released only after the construction). The local masons were also trained in proper toilet design which made the construction process smooth.

Soon her neighbours started building toilets at home too. Ever since life has become less complicated and cumbersome for the women and adolescent girls here in the village. Recently, Alagammal's daughter while enthusiastically explaining the hygiene practices taught in her school said she wants to introduce those lessons at home too.

More than 25,000 households have built toilets in these five blocks in the past three years increasing the toilet coverage from 42% to 60%.

The secret lies in collaboration, and thereby strengthening the system, not in blaming the government or other concerned authorities for tardy implementation or corruption.

We find similar stories in Athoor, Nilakotai, Vatlagundu, Vadamadurai and Reddiyarchatram blocks of Dindigul district as a result of an admirable collaboration between the SBM functionaries at different levels and Gandhigram, an effective NGO in the region. More than 25,000 households have built toilets in these five blocks in the past three years, increasing the toilet coverage from 42% to 60%. A series of capacity-building measures, in addition to awareness generation programmes using multiple platforms, has worked well too.

Yet, not everything is seamless. There are issues. Delays in the release of subsidies has created hurdles in the efficient usage of the "revolving fund" established to extend interest-free short-term credit to vulnerable households that are hoping to build a toilet. Often swachhta doots, who are not provided an honorarium but are eligible for an incentive for each toilet promoted, find trouble getting their financial dues cleared quickly. This demotivates a bunch of individuals who act as catalysts for ensuring the success of the toilet building work. Furthermore, government schemes that have the best of intentions for the public usually lack the imagination to achieve the envisioned impact; and poor implementation has resulted in a trust-deficit within the public.

However, the story of sanitation promotion in several parts of Dindigul district has shown that concrete results are not beyond reach if all concerned stakeholders like the District Rural Development Agency (DRDA), block and village panchayats, local NGOs, SHGs, swachhta doots, school teachers, local masons and citizens join hands. The secret lies in collaboration, and thereby strengthening the system, not in blaming the government or other concerned authorities for tardy implementation or corruption. Change may take time, but it is in the making.

Manohar Rao is a part of Programmes at Arghyam. He can be reached at manohar@arghyam.org

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