By ANINDITA DAS
It was an engrossing conversation with a cross-section of people at the auditorium of Gauhati Town Club on August 29, 2015. In an attempt to bring a taboo topic out of the closet, a gripping Conversation on ‘Swachh Sivasagar: Towards a Clean Assam’ led to an evolution of new ideas. The discussion highlighted the team-spirit and effective participation of community members to create an Open Defecation Free (ODF) Block in Lakwa (Sivasagar district). Virendra Mittal, IAS, Deputy Commissioner, Sivasagar, who had been instrumental in bringing the change and members of the Panchayat were present there to share their experiences.
The conversation was moderated by Joyshree Das Verma, Chairperson, FICCI-FLO. Arman Ali, Director Shishu Sarothi, Samudra Gupta Kashyap of Indian Express, R.J Mandy of 93.5 FM, Srutimala Duara, writer and academician, Nurul Laskar, journalist, Miguel Das Queah, Chairman UTSAH and members of FICCI-FLO also graced the occasion. The other participants who joined the conversation include media-persons, students, technical experts and civil society organizations. It is a ‘Sanitation Scribes’ initiative, between Shishu Sarothi and Thumb Print Foundation, supported by UNICEF Assam, which is a unique one that aims to bring into focus issues around Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) in Assam.
Tahseen Alam, Communication Officer, UNICEF Assam introduced the motto of discussion which is to ensure that people have clean drinking water, proper hygiene and sanitation system. “The practice of open defecation has a drastic impact on child survival rates and child development, specifically in the tea garden areas, where the risks are too high. Our programmes basically focus on women and children. We seek to make sure that people have WASH facilities at home. In other words, we endeavour to offer them dignity. People should have privacy to go to a proper toilet. We venture to support the Government in this regard. In this context it is imperative to make a shift in the behavioural change of the people and for this we are looking for public dialogue and advocacy. This is where ‘Sanitation Scribes’ comes useful. Sanitation has never been considered as sensational topic to be publicised. Our focus is on developmental issues, particularly WASH. It is embarrassing to talk about certain things in the media, in the public discourse. Thus, conversation can be a good opportunity to interact. This conversation is basically about Open Defecation Movement, which is a process. We want to replicate the model of Lakwa in Assam”, which is in the process to be declared as ODF area very soon”, she said.
Joyshree Das Verma stated “We want more people from the Government machinery and civil society to take part in the conversation. It provides a platform to share our stories and more people can talk about sanitation and we can achieve the target of ODF environment in Assam”.
Expressing his gratitude to ‘Sanitation Scribes’ for inviting him and his ODF team, Viren Mittal said that Sanitation is a non-glamorous topic. He made an impressive AV presentation of the ODF initiative taken in the Lakwa block, with the support of his team, which include PRI members and volunteers, students and teachers as well as the media. “The implementation of sanitation activities began in November, 2014. The first and foremost thing required for it was self motivation, and then motivating the various departments related to it. The next move was to identify the problem area. The behavioural reorientation, emphasising on behaviour change communication through the Community – led total Sanitation (CLTS) or Community Approach for Total Sanitation (CATS) aiming towards collective behavior change for elimination of open and unsafe defecation was on the line. It was observed that people were using unsafe toilets. The project co-ordinator did not exhibit much interest initially. Assam is a socially advanced compared to North Indian states.
“Hence, I had to invoke the history of Assam to stimulate the interest in people saying that they are also heroes like Lachit Borphukan, Gadapani, Mulagabharu and Joymoti who can become influential in the development of Assam. Through inter-personal communication we made the grassroot level workers such as ASHA and Gaon Panchayat understand the power of people. As we all know that Assamese people are emotional, I attempted to invoke their emotion in the right and positive direction,” says Mittal. He further talked about the various motivational sessions conducted throughout the area. A motivational song was also composed for the purpose. Mittal has left no stone unturned to make the mission a successful one with his pro-active participation as he even tested the bricks himself which were used in the construction of toilet. Testing of water is also done in the area for which they have a mobile unit. For fund, they sought help from the capable NGOs in addition to the Government sources. The masons who built the toilets were also needed to be adequately trained. He expressed his delight over the fact that the PHED has started taking much interest that the fund is now released within a single day and the people in the department worked even on 15th of August for the review, which marks a new beginning in Assam.
“Everything does not come free. Toilet is for our own convenience. If we can buy a mobile phone for our convenience, why can’t we make a latrine? The government does not provide subsidy for mobile phones, so why should we expect it for latrines?” Mittal further remarked. The ambassadors of the mission are dedicatedly monitoring the area for the appropriate use and maintenance of the latrines. He also talked about taking stern measures against the government officials who do not have safe latrines in their houses.
Senior Journalist Samudra Gupta Kashyap commenting on the stereotypical role of the media hankering after sensational news said, “The issues such as sanitation do not get proper coverage in media though no one wants to see or read the sensational news repeatedly. As far as my knowledge till now only two Gaon Panchayats of Assam have been able to receive the Nirmal Gram Puraskar for useable and safe toilets. The number is more in Nagaland. In this context I would like to mention about a daughter-in-law of a village called Kamarbandha in Golaghat who refused to stay in her in-laws’ house after her marriage as there was no latrine. The in-laws were compelled to construct a sanitary latrine to bring her back. The news, though very relevant in terms of sanitation and hygiene, did not get enough space in media. These kinds of stories need publicity. Stories are not said, they are required to be told. The people in media should be properly trained in this age of specialisation to tackle the issues of development and sanitation effectively”. Queen Ojha, the former Mayor of Guwahati Municipal Corporation, agreeing to what Kashyap said expressed her resentment over the facts that editors of the media houses did not pay much impetus to a project they carried on in collaboration with UNICEF.
PHED Executive Engineer Nripendra Kumar Sharma drew attention to the fact that the men folk in the tea garden areas think that toilets are only for women. Such types of misconception among the people keep them ignorant about the ill effects of defecating in the open. Arup Gogoi, another PHED employee from Sibsagar intimated that many PHED schemes have been introduced involving various departments to deal with the sanitation issue.
Angaraj Duarah suggested that the students from the schools of urban areas can be taken to the schools in the villages to speak to their counterparts about sanitation and hygiene. Academician and writer Srutimala Duara mentioned about her writing books on WASH for children in the form of stories as children learn better in such manner. She recommended including those books in the school curriculum.
Director of Women Development Centre Sister Betsie talked about the 11 districts they have taken under their jurisdiction to make people aware and habituated with WASH. “Our staff is going village to village and house to house in Golaghat district”, she stated.
Psychiatrist Dr. Sangeeta Datta emphasised on spreading awareness said “People must be told about the ill effects of open defecation. If we can prevent diarrhoea, cholera and other such infectious diseases caused due to bad sanitation through ODF environment, the life risk of people would be reduced. Research across the globe shows it is due to awareness that such diseases have drastically come down. Everyone wants to have proper health. So, once they are aware, they need to involve everyone in the community level under efficient leadership. Positive behaviour should be appreciated and rewarded which will help to motivate other people also. Media can be a facilitator to such an effort.”
P.K Chakravarty laid stressed on the fact that ODF environment calls for cent percent execution as it should also be taken as a grave concern that even children excreta should not be disposed in the open and it should strictly be observed.
Aminul Haque, faculty, Social Work department, USTM said that with the help of students of the department they are visiting villages as a part of their field work and are trying to spread awareness among the people in terms of sanitation. He also said that activities like street plays and wall writing can be effective medium for spreading awareness.