28/09/2015 8:23 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Sikkim Scales The Peak Of Sanitation

DIPTENDU DUTTA via Getty Images
Buddhist prayer flags are pictured from a bridge in Pelling, India's Sikkim state, on December 19, 2013. The three-day long Buddha Mahotsava religious event concluded in the northeastern Indian state December 19 with the goal of promoting the state as a hub for religious tourism. AFP PHOTO/Diptendu DUTTA (Photo credit should read DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP/Getty Images)

The tiny state of Sikkim in north-east India is the first to have provided toilets for all its citizens. In doing so, it has become the first to be free from open defecation. It did this by putting women first and strong leadership at all levels. Sikkim's achievement stands out in India, where about 600 million people continue to use open areas to defecate even if they have toilets. It shows how people can be convinced of the need to build and use toilets without financial support from the government. Making toilets are the end of a long process of what can be best described as social engineering.

Vibrant local councils and panchayats have led the process in the state. The stable leadership of Chief Minister P K Chamling who launched a community-led campaign in 1999 has helped. But the starting point was not a desire to stop people from soiling the state's pristine hills.

The campaign has its roots in drinking water pollution. Sikkim's people rely on springs for drinking that were getting increasingly polluted by human excreta. The only way to stop this was to get people to understand the reasons for contamination and consequent illness and offer toilets as a possible solution. The state's sanitation drive nipped the problem in the bud and in 2008 the state government declared the state free from open defecation. Over the past seven years, it has remained so.

"It did this by putting women first and strong leadership at all levels."

NGOs have been important in mobilising communities and making people aware of the need and advantages of sanitation. They have also trained people to make toilets suitable for hilly terrain. The Kanchenjunga Conservation Committee has trained people to make toilets. It also run campaigns on the link between human excreta and water pollution, and suggested toilets are a solution. Its head, Kinzong Bhutia, said KCC's campaign has brought in environment engineers who understood how to make septic tanks adapted for high altitudes.

The state has a high literacy level, another factor for success. At 82 per cent as per the 2011 Census, this is among the best performing states in the country. The block development officer of Namthang Block, South Sikkim, A B Gurung, says this has helped people express themselves better. They are involved in daily decision-making and take up local problems with government officials proactively instead of letting it fester.

Literacy has also helped developing local expertise. Each panchayat has a trained person called a barefoot engineer who is tasked with looking after water sources. Another important task is ensuring all septic tanks are cleaned regularly so they do not emit harmful effluents. If a house is constructing a new tank, this person ensures it meets construction norms. The engineer is paid out of funds collected from the households in the panchayat. The state's population in 2011 was 6,07,000. It has made 101,000 toilets for households--that is 115 percent of the requirement.

Challenges remain. Toilets and septic tanks need to be emptied. This needs equipment and human resources. Solid waste needs to be cleared and disposed safely. While all schools have toilets, their condition is not uniformly satisfactory and needs work. Many do not have water and toilets get blocked. The state gets a large number of tourists making it imperative to ensure all hotels have adequate toilets and water. The state government has a continuous information campaign so people are kept aware of the need to keep the state clean and free from open defecation, as well as looking after sanitation facilities.

This is based on a study of five states that have performed better than the national average on sanitation. It was conducted by WaterAid India in 2015.

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