Women for Sanitation revolution in rural Bengal

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Hadipur Jhikra (West Bengal), Oct 5: Muskura Begam, who has worked tirelessly to bring a silent sanitation revolution in the village, is eagerly awaiting the day when the Nirmal Gram Puruskar would be bestowed on the hamlet.

Muskura, a 22-year-oldn Anganwadi Worker and motivator for sanitation, has used children as agents of change for transforming this backward, poor Muslim dominated village for bringing 100 per cent sanitation in the area.

The village with a population of about 15000 had only 7 per cent toilet coverage in 2001, but now every single household can boast of its own toilet. This is a great achievement for a village where 76 per cent population lives below the poverty line.

For years the 'Madhyama' pass lady used to visit door to door trying to convince the villagers about the harmful effects of open defecation and how having toilets would not only improve health and hygiene of the family but also provide dignity and sense of privacy to their women and children.

Moreover, she also pointed out that by spending few hundred on toilet they would save money in the long run by not having to visit doctors due to water borne diseases like cholera, typhoid, diarrhoea and dysentry.

''I first focused on creating awareness among children coming to the Anganwadi about the beneficial effects of using toilets instead of open defacations. Later these children went and convinced their families about the issue. Moreover, the children holding posters about sanitation visited all the households in the village and convinced them about the issue,'' she told a team of visiting journalists, who witnessed the progress of sanitation campaign at the grassroot level.

However, the biggest challenge for Ms Muskura was the abject poverty of the villagers as most of them expressed inability to even pay the subsidised cost of Rs 210 for the toilet. The government provides 50 per cent subsidy on the soak pit toilets which cost Rs 420.

''So, I adopted an innovative method and started visiting their houses every day and whatever women used to save be it Re 1 or Rs 2 or even 50 paisa, I collected from every household and maintained a separate account for all of them. Soon the money collected and even the poorest of the families had money to build the toilet,'' she said.

Now the Village has applied for the the Nirmal Gram Puraskar given to villages with 100 per cent sanitation and Ms Muskura has dreams of utilising the prize money of Rs 5 lakh for building drainage system for the village along with community toilets at village market place and garbage pit. Till now 5700 PRIs have received this award.

According to Gram Pradhan Abdul Gani Deewan, the basic problem in achieving total sanitation was changing the mindset of people especially the elderly who resist the change from open defecation to using closed toilet. However, this challenge could be overcome by convincing women and children of the beneficially role of toilets and NGOs along with Panchayati Raj Institutions could play a major role in this.

Even schools in the area now have separate toilets for boys and girls and Students Cabinet have also been formed under which children are given training in leadership and maintaining cleanliness in the classrooms and toilets. Many of the schools have started sanitary napkin vending machines which has resulted in convenience to girl students and increased their presence as many times girls used to take leave during mensuration cycle, UNICEF representative Alka Gupta said.

One of the beneficial side effect of the total sanitation campaign was evident in the form of emergence of women leadership at grassroot level the example of which are Ms Muskura, Reena Nayak, who run a Self Help Group while scores of other women leaders work as Anganwadi Workers and PRI representatives, said Shampa Mukherjee, Programme Officer with the Comprehensive Area Development Corporation.

However, presence of arsenic in water was also a major problem in the area as most of the tubewells have water with the heavy metal which is highly toxic and use of it result in cancer, said Ms Mukherjee. The area has 89 tubewells of which 41 are arsenic affected as the testing at the CADC's Water Quality Monitoring Laboratory has revealed.

The safe pumps have been painted blue to distinguish them from those having arsenic water which is unsafe for drinking purpose.

However, the problem was once the paints gets off, it would be difficult to distinguish them so the UNICEF wanted that arsenic containing tubewells should be painted red. But the West Bengal Government did not allow it as the red colour is associated with the ruling Communist Party's flag, she said.

To overcome the problem of arsenic, the CADC, which runs a Rural Sanitary Mart, has developed Nirmal Filters which purifies the arsenic containing water. However, the cost of Rs 575, which is not subsidised, is proving a major hurdle as many of the poor people could not afford it. Recently, the schools/anganwadi centres have started using it and hope to popularise it through Self Help Groups, Ms Mukherjee said. The CADC, getting financial support from UNICEF, is also running a training centre for women.


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