DEGREES ranging from law to engineering under their belt, about 400 youngsters are now living in some of India’s least developed districts, starting their day at 4 am, visiting spots that villagers use as toilets, drawing up plans for building toilets, and reviewing village-wise plans for better access to sanitation, while working closely with district magistrates or collectors. These men and women, all in their mid-twenties, are the ‘Zilla Swachh Bharat Preraks’ of a programme run jointly by the Union Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation along with Tata Trusts with the objective of ending open defecation by 2019.
In Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh, Farakh Abbas, age 24, is actually a local who left to study engineering and then a masters in Liberal Arts. Now one of the Zilla Swachh Bharat Preraks on the field, he recollects a childhood experience: “Growing up in a government colony, I saw villagers used the area around a pond in our backyard for defecation. We had a rose garden in the front, and yet every morning there was a stench. Watchmen were paid to chase villagers who desperately needed space to defecate. The women, to avoid public shame, would wake up at 2 or 3 am to evade the watchmen. If caught, they would cry and promise never to do it again. But where else could they go?” Moved, a young Farakh once asked his mother if the older women could be invited to come home and use their toilet. “I had no answer for what my mother asked: How many will we invite?”
With a population of 25 lakh, Mirzapur is now home to the first block in UP to become free of open defecation, but 1,30,000 toilets are still to be built as the administration draws up plans for an open defecation-free (ODF) district. Having worked on sanitation issues in a Pune slum, Farakh jumped at the opportunity when he heard about the programme. “I saw it as an opportunity to return home and I signed up immediately,” he says.
The Zilla Swachh Bharat Prerak Programme was announced last December with Tata Trusts chairman Ratan Tata saying that a cadre of skilled young professionals, one in each rural district, would work with the state government or district administration, at no cost. About 600 youngsters will eventually be appointed, on a stipend up to Rs 50,000 paid by Tata Trusts.
The programme fellows have been trained by the Tata Center for Development at the University of Chicago, along with the International Innovation Corps. Rajen Makhijani, country director of Tata Center for Development, told The Indian Express that the fellows were given boot camp-style training in programmatic delivery, management skills and on-ground best practice.
Garima Poonia, 24, was working with waste-pickers in Jamshedpur when she heard about the programme through the alumni network of the Young India Fellowship at Asoka University. “I was already with Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban) for a year and this was a chance to work in the rural sector. The fact that this is an opportunity to work towards behavioural change, the toughest part of the campaign, is the big motivation,” says Garima, posted in Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh.
Recently, she completed interviewing and selecting grassroots workers who will be her programme’s foot soldiers. Many of her interviewees are women, including several who had not studied beyond class VIII or IX. “Some were even homemakers who have never worked outside their home. We now have a plan, and once our grassroots workers move into a village, they will actually implement our plan and then give us feedback for better intervention.”
Tata Trusts director Prabhat Pani says about a quarter of the fellows are freshers while another 60 per cent have less than five years experience, lending this cadre a freshness and earnestness. Pani says many of the applicants were from urban backgrounds but had compelling reasons to want to be part of the project. Other criteria included local language skills. Some, like Farakh, wanted to work in their home district.
Sunil Kumar, 25, posted in Amroha, Uttar Pradesh, has seen the state’s villages since his childhood growing up in Uasrah village, Aligarh. “My father made sacrifices to ensure his kids got a good education,” says Sunil, who completed his B Tech in 2011 and joined Delhi Metro Rail Corporation in 2013 as a station controller, while simultaneously studying law at Delhi University. “That was just not an inspiring job,” he recollects. When the opportunity to join the Swachh Bharat fellowship came up, he consulted his father before giving up the stable DMRC job. “My father said paina jo hai patthar pe bhi surakh kar deta hai (something sharp can dent a stone.) Success can be found in any stream, not necessarily in a mainstream or government job.”
Now, he says, when he walks into villages, people don’t immediately sense he’s an outsider. “From my behaviour and my clothes, I pass off as one of them. I speak their dialect, so I am able to do this job very easily.”
Having started a Primary Education Monitoring Committee in Uasrah, Sunil now checks if schools in Amroha have toilets, if they have all mapped students’ homes on charts: green ink for students with toilets at home, red for those who don’t. “The children will be impacted by this mission too, so we’re involving them through poster-making and such activities spreading awareness,” he says.
Back in Mirzapur, Farakh has already proposed Swachhata Maajhi for gram panchayats on the banks of the Ganga. “A single boat ferries 800 people daily. This is a great opportunity to trigger. The Swachhata Maajhi will be trained to instruct passengers to dispose waste in a bin. Passengers will have an option to buy waste bins for their houses from the boatman,” he says.
As more preraks are selected and trained, Pani of Tata Trusts says this is the first time that a “fairly significant” government project has felt convinced that a nongovernmental partner can add value to it. “It’s important that we make sure the project works well, so there will be opportunities in other areas for us and other similar players in future.”