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Women Are Leading The Campaign To Make Bihar Free Of Open Defecation

14/11/2016 12:54 PM IST | Updated 19/11/2016 9:34 AM IST
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Although Bihar has lagged in implementing the Swachh Bharat programme, there is heartening progress in places such as Rohtas, Sitamarhi and Khagaria, where women are driving the change for health and sanitation.

Mohd Imran Khan

By Mohd Imran Khan* Rohtas, Bihar

It is vigilance of a different sort. Every morning and evening, a small group of women of Khaira Bhutaha village patrol the fields to persuade people not to defecate in the open. It's not an easy thing to do in the countryside where old habits are often the most difficult to change. But Shanti Devi, in her 40s, and Nutan Devi, in her 30s, along with a few other women, are determined.

"We stand for one to two hours near the fields to stop those who defecate in the open and persuade them to change this habit," Shanti, clad in colourful cotton sari, said. Nutan added that women realise that open defecation is bad for health. "We were forced to defecate in the open due to lack of toilet facilities. Now we have toilets after the entire village decided to change our old habit of using the fields," Nutan said.

We stand for one to two hours near the fields to stop those who defecate in the open and persuade them to change this habit. Shanti Devi, resident of Khaira Bhutaha village

This is a dramatic reversal from the time — just months ago — when Nutan and Shanti, along with other women, would wait for the cover of dark to relieve themselves in the nearby fields. Then they were exposed to the Swachh Bharat movement and the Total Sanitation Campaign aimed at open defecation.

But Bihar is among the states that are lagging behind. Bihar Rural Development Minister Shravan Kumar said it is a hard fact that millions of poor people in Bihar still don't have toilet facilities, which forces them to defecate in the open. "The state government is working to provide toilets to all families," he says.

Areas of success

But there are areas of success, such as Khaira Bhutaha village. Both Shanti and Nutan are landless Dalit people fighting for survival. Most men and women of the 150 households of this village in Sanjhauli administrative block of Rohtas district in Bihar work either at farms or are daily wage labourers in neighbouring areas and beyond. The majority of the people in the village are Dalits, OBCs and EBCs.

"This collective behavioural change is the result of community participation," Arvind Kumar Choudhary, principal secretary, rural development department, Bihar government, told VillageSquare.in. "Our focus is not only to construct toilets but also to ensure a village open defection free (ODF) through collective behavioural change."

Choudhary said the government wants to achieve ODF in Bihar by 2 October 2019. But to achieve this, there is need for about 200 gram panchayats becoming ODF every month. It appears to be a big challenge for now.

The use of the Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) method has started yielding some results. The Rampur gram panchayat in Khagaria district is a good example. It became the first ODF gram panchayat in Bihar last year. Taking it as a model, attempts are now being made to replicate it across the state.

Sources of inspiration

Spearheading the movement towards an ODF Bihar are people from the community who are serving as shining examples. One of these is Phool Kumari, a resident of Barahkhanna village in Sanjhauli. She mortgaged her jewellery and took up employment as a daily wage labourer to raise money to build a toilet at her house in July this year.

Impressed by her work, Rohtas district magistrate Animesh Kumar Parashar made Phool Kumari the brand ambassador of the total sanitation programme in the district and Sulabh International, a non-profit, declared her Bihar's Swachhta Doot (Cleanliness Ambassador), giving her a prize of ₹2 lakh.

Phool Kumari mortgaged her jewellery and took up employment as a daily wage labourer to raise money to build a toilet at her house.

"I am happy that my small step of constructing a toilet has contributed to the community. They have taken it to hundreds of households and Sanjhauli block has become open defecation free," Phool Kumari told VillageSquare.in.

Phool is not alone. Saroj Kumari, a resident of Udaypur gram panchayat in Sanjhauli, whose husband died of snakebite while using a field to answer nature's call, has made it her life's mission to motivate and educate people in other villages. "I have been requesting villagers in the district to construct toilets if they do not want to risk the life of their husband, children and their honour," she said.

In Khagaria's Rampur gram panchayat, everyone from students to small-time traders to religious leaders were part of a community-led intervention that achieved an open defection-free environment. "When Mohd Zakir, imam of the local mosque, included this sanitation issue in his weekly Friday discourse (khutbah) at the mosque, it helped to bring positive behavioural change," Krishna Kumar, a sanitation soldier, said. Muslims constitute about 65% of Rampur's population.

Geeta Devi, team leader of the nigrani samiti (vigilance committee) of Rampur, has motivated and mobilised villagers with her powerful words that protection of a family's honour and dignity is more important than smartphones, clothes and other luxury items. "We have convinced them that they will gain honour, dignity and self-respect by saying no to open defecation. It was a life-changer for most poor villagers, particularly women who have lived for decades without a toilet at home," Geeta said.

Rampur has set an example in Bihar, Choudhary said.

Positive ripples

After Rampur gram panchayat was declared open defecation free (ODF), Piprasi block in Champaran became the first ODF block in the state followed by Sanjhauli block in Rohtas district. But Sanjhauli was the first ODF block of Bihar after shifting the implementation of Swachh Bharat Mission Gramin (SBM-G) to the Rural Development Department.

"Sanjhauli was made open defecation free in 55 days only. Over 6,000 families have constructed toilets in 64 villages in six gram panchayat in Sanjhauli," Rohtas district magistrate Animesh Parashar said. The district-wide campaign was launched as Mission Pratistha in June to make the district ODF in a time-bound manner, Parashar said.

Proper social mobilisation integrated with mentoring support and dynamic leadership have led to the success of Sanjhauli block, Indranil Ghosh, who works for SBM-G in Rohtas, said.

Upbeat over the success in Sanjhauli, Rohtas district administration has been working to turn Surajpura, Nokha and Tilauthu blocks open defection free. "They may be declared ODF in November itself," Ghosh said.

We have convinced [villagers] that they will gain honour, dignity and self-respect by saying no to open defecation. Geeta Devi, team leader of the nigrani samiti, Rampur

UNICEF has trained nearly 1,000 motivators as resource persons, who are supporting communities to live open defecation free, according to Pravin Santosh More, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Specialist at the UNICEF office in Bihar.

Sitamarhi district magistrate Rajeev Roshan, who was the man behind the first ODF gram panchayat Rampur when he was DM Khagaria, said that approach to involve community in the village created a friendly base to develop an understanding of how open defecation is harmful.

Roshan said one sub-division Belsand and two blocks — Nanpur and Parsauni — are on the verge of being declared ODF. Dozens of gram panchayats have already become ODF in the district. "In Nanpur block, all gram panchayats have been declared ODF. Only formal declaration of the block is to be made," he said. Roshan praised women for playing a crucial role.

Choudhary said work is progressing in several districts, including Sitamarhi, Rohtas, Buxar, East and West Champaran and Khagaria. He said that Sitamarhi is likely to become the first ODF district in Bihar by March 2017, followed closely by West Champaran and Rohtas. "In fact, there are several districts in the race to become ODF in Bihar — it is a positive development," he said.

*Mohd Imran Khan is a Patna-based journalist.

This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.

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