India, a country home to over 1.3 billion people, is equivalent to 17.7% of the world’s total population. Along with the varied culture and diversity, emerges an overwhelming reality – the lack of basics such as clean water to drink, an accessible toilet, and good hygiene practices.
As I travelled to some of the most remote rural communities and trailed the lanes of urban slum dwellings in fast-growing towns, this blatant truth was everywhere. But even though the growing population and the lack of resources has its own challenges, there are communities and small groups of men, women, and children that are making this weakness their strength…
When the presence of water is not enough!
In the interiors of Odisha is a district – Nuapada. Extremely dry and arid even in the month of spring – February – there were hardly any people outside their houses in Kirejholla village. The only ones I saw were women walking through the uneven terrain with huge buckets in their hands. Nuapada is one of the worst affected areas witnessing water contamination. As I chatted with the villagers under the cool shade of a tree, I came across the fact that over two decades ago, the villagers accessed water from the only dug well in their reach. The well, being open at all times, soon became a pool of diseases. With no boundary wall around the well, people often slipped into it. Thus, the local authorities arranged for five hand pumps to be installed in the village. Everyone welcomed the initiative that would make their lives easier and although the water was available at the hand pump, about five years down the line people began to complain of tooth decolouration and joint pain.
On discussing further the shift from the well to hand pump, Tignath Raut, a 60-year-old frail man walked in. As he struggled to sit on a comparatively high platform, I had no other option but to notice his extremely bent posture. His feeble legs were visible from his lungi [a traditional garment worn around the waist]. The villagers immediately pointed out to him and informed me about the deterioration in his physique due to the water he consumed from the hand pump.
“We were told that the hand pump water was safe to drink. Today, after consuming the same water for so many years, I have immense pain in my joints and my back is totally bent… Who do you think is responsible for this?” questioned Raut, who suffers from an adverse case of skeletal fluorosis. A farmer, he had to quit his work due to the increasing body pain and immobility. What came along with the pain was financial instability.
Kirejholla village is one of the five villages in the block that suffers from extreme fluoride contamination of water. The village is home to over 190 families, mostly belonging to a primitive Adivasi tribe known as Gond. Raut’s case was not one-off. Many men, women, and children in the village faced various forms of physical pain and deformities as a result of prolonged consumption of contaminated water. Skeletal fluorosis had made deep inroads into their lives.
In 2016, WaterAid India and its partner intervened in the village by first forming a Jalabandhu committee (Jal means water and Bandhu means friend in Hindi). Water from all sources in the village was tested for all types of contamination and the results were shocking. It revealed that fluoride level of water was close to 3ppm (way more than the permissible limit of 0.7ppm) in all five hand pumps. Surprisingly, the dug well was a safer option in this regard. Thus, awareness campaigns and discussions were soon initiated by the Jalbandhu committee which comprised of villagers who generated awareness amongst others about the water problem and its consequences.
The lower ppm in the dug well led to the community members improving its condition. They came together and with technical and financial support from WaterAid India, it was decided that the dug well will be refurbished into a mini piped water supply system. Soon, it was plastered and a storage tank was built next to it with a capacity of 12,000 litre. A water pump was also placed in order to fetch water from the well at all times and the ten taps on the outside of the storage tank made it easy for the villagers to collect water. Slowly and steadily, it has been observed that the health of the villagers is not deteriorating further. More so, they are taking ownership of their water source. Jalbandhu Committees are not just limited to the village level, but they exist at the block and district levels as well. Now they are voicing their concerns to the state government through a proper process.
The Water Gap Report: The State of the World’s Water reveals the countries that struggle for clean water, highlights those that have made the most progress, and calls upon the world’s governments to address the injustice of the water crisis. Even though India is one of the world’s most-improved nations for reaching the most people with clean water, but faces challenges with falling groundwater levels, drought, demand from agriculture and industry, pollution and poor water resource management.
Ensuring sustained toilet use and more…
And while we all know how critical access to clean water is, for me, its importance turned out to be even more as I witnessed the various other associated aspects. Evidently, the lack of water leads to the minimum use of toilets, as they cannot be cleaned and flushed after every use. And thus, communities that are short of water, tend to defecate in the open.
The government’s flagship campaign, ‘Swachh Bharat Mission’ or the ‘Clean India Campaign’, was launched on 2 October 2014 with the key objective to eliminate open defecation. While the campaign has shown some great results in terms of toilet construction across the country, the sustainability of these toilets is a point of concern.
Interestingly, there are a number of communities that are working together to sustain the nation-wide change taking place. Like the men and women across villages in Kanker district of Chhattisgarh. Guided and supported by WaterAid India, they have formed small groups known as ‘Nigrani Samitis’ (vigilance committees).
At dawn, the members of the Nigrani Samiti come along and walk across the village to ensure that nobody is defecating in the open. I was told that I would have to wake up at 4.30 AM to witness this interesting practice. When I reached the village that morning, I was amazed to see men, women, children and even their pet dogs in action for the early morning task. They went around the village holding a heavy stick in one hand, and a torch in the other. I was wrong when I assumed that the stick was only to scare people defecating the open. It was later that I was told that sometimes during these early hours there are wild bears and snakes also. And thus the torch and stick!
Along with ensuring sustained use of toilets at the grassroots level, there is another important aspect that is the need of the hour; management of solid and liquid waste. While metro cities like Delhi and Mumbai have not been able to adopt this practice of segregating waste at the household level, some villages like Lalpur in Lucknow and parts of Durg district in Chhattisgarh are setting great examples.
Women from various Self-Help Groups (SHG) in Durg have come together in collaboration with the local municipality. They collect waste from each household, counsel the people to separate the waste (into wet and dry categories) at the household level, and then segregate the entire community’s waste. These inspiring women work for about 7-8 hours a day. They sieve through all sorts of garbage thrown by the community members. As a next step, these women are now trying to sell certain types of garbage (such as tins, plastics, and papers) to the scrap dealer, and recycle some of the waste material into decorative items.
As per the latest independent survey conducted by National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey (NARSS) 2017-18, around 77% of rural households have toilets and over 93% of rural households that have access to toilets use them. Though the survey shows the progress made by India in terms of providing access to toilets as well as using them, we need to realise that not all is done yet. We need to continue to work hard as a country to ensure sustained use of toilets thus reaching the desired impact and making clean India a reality.
Creating awareness from children to community
Access to clean water and toilets go hand in hand with good hygiene practices. As a first step, the lack of awareness amongst people is to be dealt with. And a brilliant example was a group of students I met at a Government Schools in Raichur, Telangana. These dynamic kids are known as WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) Champions, and they are truly living up to their name!
Hence, an effective way to avoid such health problems is by empowering school-related institutions to change hygiene behaviour by directly reaching out to the communities to sustain handwashing behaviour.It is an established fact that handwashing with soap at critical times, such as after using the toilet, before eating or cooking or feeding infants/children is estimated to reduce diarrhoeal diseases by 47%, almost by half. Also, it helps reduce acute respiratory infections such as pneumonia by 23% that will further reduce infant and child mortality, another pressing health problem in India.
During the hygiene classes conducted by teachers and a student in-charge, these five steps are discussed and practiced diligently. Schools also conduct regular meetings with the parents to discuss sanitation and hygiene issues. My visit to the Government Higher Primary School, Puchhaldini in Raichur was an eye-opener. Coming from remote villages in Raichur district where hygiene practices are not prevalent, these school children are also agents of behaviour change as they pass on the information to their family members. Their understanding about clean hands and its impact on health is making a huge difference to not just their lives, but also of their families.
As a whole, the common feature in all the communities that has stood out is that the people are themselves taking up ownership, irrespective of the political system and the resources they have. From children in the School WASH Champion Committees to the men and women in Nigrani Samitis, they prove that age, caste, gender, and creed are irrelevant when it comes to improving their living conditions and creating a lasting impact.