Cleanliness conquers indignity in modern Kurukshetra war

November 2nd, 2008 - 1:07 pm ICT by IANS  

Kurukshetra (Haryana), Nov 2 (IANS) At the arena of the war in the Indian epic Mahabharata, another age-old evil is about to be conquered. In about 400 of the 417 villages of this district, people have stopped defecating in the open heralding a sanitation revolution in these parts.Villagers in this district no longer greet each other the old way. They raise clenched fists and shout “Swachh gaon, swasth gaon” (Clean village, healthy village).

For those who failed to get the message when the fight against defecation in the open started in earnest at the beginning of this year, women’s groups in various villages formed their own vigilance committees, armed with torches and sticks.

By now, the administration has completed work on about 32,000 out of 34,000-odd toilets they have to build to cover every village home in the district, says Additional Deputy Commissioner Sumedha Kataria.

The administration didn’t meet its target of completing the work by Friday, but it’s almost there. “Already nobody goes out in the open any more,” Kataria told a visiting IANS correspondent.

“There is no shortage of toilets. What was needed was a change in mindset. And that is what has happened.”

The change is very visible at Khanpur Koliyan, a village off National Highway 1, about 150 km from the national capital.

It looks like the village has for long been prosperous, by Indian standards. But typically, a toilet would be the last thing built. Now walk into any home, however poor, and there is a toilet in a corner. Perhaps only the average Indian villager would be able to really appreciate the novelty.

The veils are no bar to the women gathering at the village entrance from raising the ‘clean village healthy village’ slogan as soon as they espy a visitor. They guide you to a house they use for meetings, where they fall over one another to tell you how they formed the vigilance committee, how they went out with torches and sticks in the middle of the night to shame anyone found defecating in the open.

“We caught them, we shamed them, we didn’t fight with them physically, but what we did was enough,” says sarpanch (village head) Jasvinder Kaur. “We had announced a reward of Rs.500 to whoever caught someone defecating in the open. Since all those people ran away as soon as we shone our torches at their faces, no one got the reward,” she laughs.

“That has been the best thing about this movement,” Kataria says proudly. “It has been a people’s movement. The people have done it, especially the women and children.”

The children have finished school by this time and start gathering in small shy gawky groups, many sporting caps with the ‘clean village healthy village’ slogan. Ask what they know about the sanitation campaign, and one mumbles: “I’m a swacchata sainik (cleanliness soldier). Ma’am told us to use the toilets at home and make sure all our friends do that too.”

“Yes, teachers have been very important sources of support for us,” agrees Kataria. “In every block, we found eight to 10 of them, who came forward and organised the rallies through which we launched this movement.”

The women came up with a new slogan in these rallies - “Our daughter will be married only to a family that has a toilet at home”. It dramatically decreased the percentage of people holding out against the new construction, chuckles Satwant Kaur, at 70 an inspiration to the village women’s committee.

As the women gathered to organise the sanitation campaign, it has had another unexpected welcome fallout in this district with the terrible population ratio of 850 women for every 1,000 men. “As the women get together, we can explain to them how bad female foeticide is,” says Jasvinder Kaur.

The terrible indignity of having to defecate in the open behind them, residents of Khanpur Koliyan are ready to move beyond personal sanitation. “The women’s committee has started digging pits where garbage will be collected, buried, and turned into compost,” Kaur told IANS.

“We’ve started this in 20 villages,” says Kataria. “We’re giving them financial incentives too.”

(Joydeep Gupta can be contacted at Joydeep.g@ians.in)

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