Indian villages become models of cleanliness

26 June 2008

Thanks to initiatives taken by women active in local governance as also NGOs that are reaching out with financial assistance and expertise, filth-infested villages in western India are now turning into models of sparkling cleanliness. Empowerment of women has played a major role in this because they best understand cleanliness.

Pune: In the remote Borne village in Satara district, a large number of women were found to suffer from urinary tract infections.

The reason was that due to lack of toilets, either in homes or outside, women had to hold their need to urinate for long hours due to lack of privacy. Sometimes, the opportunity to do so would be available only during the dark hours of the night.

Indian rural women
Women digging trenches for watershed management / Photo credit: WOTR

When Sunita Lohar took over as the sarpanch, the foremost task on her agenda to bring about changes in the village was to construct toilet. It wasn’t an idea easy to implement since the men thought it would be a waste of money as also water, which had to be brought from long distances.

Sunita had her way and today Borne is one of those villages in Maharashtra that has a toilet in every house.

Cleanliness best understood by women

The bigger picture here is that of cleanliness and hygiene. Thanks to the initiative taken by those women who have forayed into the governance system as also NGOs that are reaching out with the requisite funding and expertise, absolutely filth-infested villages across the state are now turning into models of sparkling cleanliness.

“Women empowerment has had a major role to play because cleanliness is best understood by them. Also, what has worked as a parallel support system is that watershed management has helped solve the problems of water scarcity so that maintaining cleanliness has become that much easier,” points out Crispino Lobo, the founder-director of Watershed Organisation Trust based in Ahmednagar.

He is also the director of Sampada Trust that works on women empowerment issues.

A survey of some of the villages in the state reveals that cleanliness has definitely had a boost because of two factors.

Empowered women

One, the 73rd Amendment Act in the Indian Constitution in 1993 that introduced a three-tier system of local governance ranging from the village to the district level. This helped in terms of reservation for women candidates at the Gram Panchayat level.

“Ever since women have found the opportunity to have a say in the governance of a village, tremendous efforts have been undertaken to improve upon the health and hygiene aspects. Till this time, no one paid heed to the needs of women.

Today, we not only have toilet facilities in the village but also a ready supply of water and a regular system of garbage disposal so that no waste that can spread diseases is allowed to accumulate,” points out Vaijanti Raut of Nimgaon village in Shirur taluka of Pune.

Sanitation campaign

Two, the positive after-effects of the state-initiated Sant Gadge Baba Village Sanitation Campaign (SGVSC) that was launched in 2000-2001 can now be seen in reality.

Under this campaign, the state departments of water supply and sanitation introduced a competition for clean villages. This activated a phenomenal change in rural Maharashtra.

According to estimates, in the first year itself, the total investment mobilised by communities was worth Rs 200-crore, with Rs 6-crore state investment.

“Our experience has shown that the concept of ‘shramdaan’ (voluntary labour) that involves women works beautifully well to usher in the required transformation in any village. Collective participation of this sort eventually leads to a sense of pride in the status of their village,” Lobo states.

Agrees social activist Anna Hazare, who says that it is only women who can usher in cleanliness and personal hygiene in any rural set-up.

In Mandwa village in Ahmednagar district, it is now not so uncommon to find women holding meetings to discuss such aspects as waste water disposal, personal hygiene, benefits of iodised salt, breast-feeding and construction of new toilets.

“A few years ago, this would have been an unthinkable proposition. But now we have realised that it is equally important to maintain cleanliness and good health as it is to work on the fields or tend to the needs of the family. We have learned to be assertive,” says Laxmi Kadam, a driving force in getting the village women together to create a forum.

Water problems

Considering that it has always been the paucity of water that led to ignoring matters of hygiene and cleanliness, rural women have been spearheading movements to first ensure an adequate supply of water.

For instance, in Pipri village in Nagpur district, woman sarpanch Vanita Kirpan’s consistent efforts forced the state government to launch a water scheme of Rs 288,000.

As evidence of how such initiatives have spun positive results, consider this: Of the 27,876 Gram Panchayats in Maharashtra, 8,531 Panchayats have been declared ‘defecation free’ and the credit for this goes entirely to the women of the villages.

Out of these, 2,367 Gram Panchayats have been honoured with the Nirmal Gram Award. The others are striving hard to get this award too.

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