In a remote corner of Sibsagar, the erstwhile capital of the Ahom kings of Assam, a resolute campaign to build clean toilets in every household is expanding the sanitation coverage in the state.
In December last year, Lakwa, a largely rural district block comprising around 8,500 households, was granted open-defecation-free (ODF) status, the first in the north-east region (barring Sikkim).
According to officials, more than 5,000 toilets had to be constructed to get the ODF tag in an effort led by a well-oiled district machinery in conjunction with the Public Health Engineering Department (PHED) and ground-level panchayat workers. In doing so, the campaign also got the chief minister’s award for excellence in public administration.
CSR initiatives of public sector giants like ONGC and BCPL, which have critical assets in Assam, and technical support from UNICEF also helped in the campaign.
“Initially, it was very difficult as people, especially those belonging to the tea tribes were adamant and stubborn about their relieving habits…But we tried connecting with them emotionally,” said Virendra Mittal, the deputy commissioner of the district under whose leadership the campaign was envisaged.
Mittal is an IAS officer hailing from Rajasthan but considers Assam his ‘karmabhoomi’.
“In Assam, emotional appeal is key,” said Mittal as over the past year his team went from door-to-door exhorting people to avoid defecating in the open.
On a recent humid afternoon, Bohagi, who doesn’t remember her age but believes she’s in the 60s, stepped out of a thatched mud hut. Pointing to a newly-constructed toilet in the backyard, she said, “Now, even at night, I can come alone and use the toilet.”
A year ago, she had to walk a few yards outside her home to use a temporary unsanitary toilet built with bamboo.
Next door, a young couple, Bornali Bosah, 34, and her husband Simanta Bosah, 38, were uncomfortable using a toilet that was shabby and made of bamboo. As a woman, Bornali also felt unsafe.
“After we got the new toilet adjacent to our home, we are satisfied. It is clean and covered. My five-year-old son, who used to defecate outside, now uses the toilet,” she said.
A recurring feature observed around the villages, where the toilets were installed, was how the residents, especially women, felt safe and secure at not being forced to defecate in the fields at night.
“We went for the ODF (open defecation free) mission so that there is a transformation in the village, so that there is less waste and lesser occurrence of diseases. Now, we are getting respect for the work we did. We told people to use the toilets as we have worked hard in making them,” said Sumitra, head of a gram panchayat in the block.
Sumitra’s words weave a narrative that was evident in Lakwa — a strong mobilization of grass-root workers in consonance with officials at higher levels of bureaucracy can meet targets and work wonders. There was also the additional silver lining — doing good work will always get you votes.
PICTURE IN ASSAM
But when one looks at the state-wide sanitation picture in Assam, there is clearly a need for more hands on the deck. Smaller and isolated campaigns like Lakwa have to spring up across the state, especially in districts like Karbi Anglong. According to the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, the overall household toilet coverage in Assam stands at 54.74%. Only two districts in the state – Dibrugarh and Nalbari have 70 per cent or more toilets, with the rest including Sibsagar trailing behind. The state has built just about 6 lakh toilets since the nationwide Swacch Bharat Mission (SBM) was kick-started by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in October 2014.
While the SBM campaign is ambitious no doubt, criticism persists in large quarters that the changes brought about are cosmetic in nature. Also, while the programme was expected to draw in corporate support courtesy PM Modi’s industry-friendly image, government data has shown that Swacch Bharat, along with Namami Gange (the campaign to clean River Ganga) got the least amount of funding from private companies in 2014-15. The greater challenge is also about sustainability and keeping the trend going.
In Lakwa too, the challenge is serious. Panchayat ward members spoke about noticing people sneaking out and defecating in the fields. “We often go and scold them when we see them,”said a panchayat member.
Mittal, the district in-charge, said there are monitoring teams who keep a lookout on the project and admitted that the continuity of the ODF is a concern. Assam’s generous monsoon season, ranging from June to October, that often results in widespread floods does not make the situation easy.
“We want elevated toilets in areas that are flood-prone so that such toilets are not submerged under water,” said Mittal.
But the campaign so far sure has got the state machinery watching as it looks to replicate the process in other districts as well. With Assam embracing a new government headed by a different party, it is hoped that the fruits of labour in Lakwa are not frittered away.