Towards an open defecation free Lakwa

Swachata doots of Sivasagar district are working overtime to achieve their goal, writes TERESA REHMAN


Subhadra Konwar is excited about her new role as a ‘swachata doot’ (sanitation messenger). She is a resident of Dhamdhuli village of Hollophukhan Gaon Panchayat of Lakwa Block in Sivasagar district. She is a happier person now with her new ‘safe’ toilet – a toilet with changeable leach pits and water facility.

After attending a workshop organized by the district administration, she decided to construct a safe toilet by a trained mason. She even invested money in placing tiles in the toilet. “We have stopped using the unsafe toilets and have covered the kachha toilets,” she says with a sense of pride. Subhadra is now a keen participant in all sanitation activities and is all praise for their ‘DC Sir’ who is steering the campaign.

Popularly known as ‘DC Sir’, Virendra Mittal, Deputy Commissioner, Sivasagar describes Sivasagar district to a rainbow where diverse communities reside in harmony. As a person entrusted with responsibility of the district, this IAS officer is unlike a typical babu. He is known for his out-of-the-box ideas and knows that he owes his power to the community. And his trusted lieutenants are the community and panchayat leaders, especially women. Mittal smiles, “They are natural leaders. They are our Joymoti and Mulagabharu.”

Mittal is now on a mission to make Sivasagar an open-defecation free (ODF) district. According to Census 2011, in Sivasagar district, the percentage of households going for open defecation is 23.92 percent with 26.16 percent in urban areas and 5.03 percent in rural areas. In fact, the block Lakwa is slated to be declared ODF before October this year. And he calls his group working on the Swachh Bharat Mission as ‘Team Sivasagar’.

UNICEF is the technical partner in the Community Approaches to Total Sanitation (CATS) pilot project in Sivasagar. The CATS approach tries to change mindsets on sanitation issues within the community on a sustained basis. The Ministry of Water and Sanitation, which runs Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) defines ODF as faecal-oral transmission, defined by no visible faeces found in the environment and every household as well as public/community institutions using safe technology option for disposal of faeces.

“I may be the captain of the team. But I alone cannot win the match. I am a swachata doot. In fact, everyone including our political leaders, field workers, community leaders, NGOs and even masons who are triggering the movement for an ODF status is a doot.” They have four Ms guiding them — motivation, money, mason and monitoring for successful completion of Individual Household Latrine (IHHL) under SBM.

So, this captain has managed to whip up an enthusiastic team, which is committed to making Sivasagar one of the cleanest districts of Assam. One swachata doot, Jyotirmoy Rajkhowa, the District Water and Sanitation Mission Consultant has composed a song on sanitation and the district administration plans to record and play it through fixed loud speakers at important points in the town – Sivasagar, Nazira and Sonari. A short film was also made to document the activities.

Now, the DC’s priority list is Lakwa block in the district and to make it Open Defecation Free (ODF). Apart from his regular personal site visits to Lakwa, this tech-saavy Deputy Commissioner keeps in touch with his team on a whatsapp group called ‘Lakwa ODF Initiative’. Lakwa block encompasses four Gram Panchayats (GPs) — Nimonagarh, Chalapathar, Charaideu, Hollophukan which includes 40 wards. The total numbers of households in these GP are 7648. Weekly meetings are organised on a regular rotation basis in all the GPs of Lakwa block to assess the progress.

However, making the block ODF is a challenging task. The block is mostly inhabited by the tea tribe community, a heterogenous community who were brought as indenture labourers to work in the tea gardens of Assam. They comprise 17 per cent of the state’s population and fare poorly on human development indices, including education. As per the Swachh Bharat Mission records, the total coverage of Individual Household Latrines (IHHL) for the entire State of Assam is 70.44%. The coverage in terms of availability of IHHL for BPL families is remarkably higher than APL families. Availability of toilets is almost in every school with 99.12% coverage. According to census 2011, in Sivasagar district, 25.8% of households do not have latrine facility within their premises. The figure is slightly higher for rural population at 28.06%.

Availability of skilled masons was a big challenge. Mason trainings were organized and they were trained in the construction of safe leach pit toilets. It was imperative to create a pool of trained ‘master masons’ to monitor and supervise the work of trained masons. The process of release of payments to NGOs / SHGs has been simplified through online transfer of funds, which is unique in the entire state.

The Lakwa block of the district is well poised to become ODF on a sustainable basis. And, at the core of it lies behavioral change. Sumitra Kumari, president of Charaideo GP says, “It is important to explain things to both men and women. Men tend to override the decision of their wives. And in tea gardens, the management should take up the responsibility to maintain sanitation and hygiene.”

The core members of Team Sivasagar include the village President, influential leaders, village frontline workers and Aanganwadi workers. Defecation mapping and a ‘Walk of Shame’ was carried out during the triggering process. Arpan Buragohain, a team member says, “Some even use the toilets as their puja ghar. Behaviourial change is a lengthy process. Religious places can be used to create awareness. We will have to plan street plays in their dialect.”

The district administration plans to rope in religious and faith-based leaders to disseminate information on good sanitation. “We can ask the pujari of a local temple or the Imam of the local mosque or the priest of the neighbourhood church to tell their congregation about hygienic use of toilets,” says Mittal.

The Nigrani Samitis are very active. They do daily morning and evening follow up to ensure there is no open defecation, sensitize community and monitor the quality of newly constructed toilets. Post triggering, plans were undertaken to chart out a construction process. And it was celebration time on February 12, 2015 when Ligribari hamlet of Hollophukhan GP attained ODF status. Amidst bihu song and jhoomur dance, a ‘Walk of Pride’ was undertaken by the villagers and Mittal joined them. Villagers took a pledge that they will never defecate in the open and will strive hard to make their village a model village for further learning.

The stage is all set now and everyone is working overtime to make Lakwa block an ODF block by September end. Even school children have been sensitised to be swachata doots. Another swachata doot is ASHA worker Manika Malia Gogoi, who has a disarming smile. “We organise health day in schools, call parents to the centre, tell children how to wash their hands. On Wednesdays (2nd and 4th), we celebrate village health and nutrition day.” The district administration has also urged the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan to include a chapter on health, hygiene and environment in the school curriculum.

Biswajit Chetia, an NGO worker has composed several songs to enthral the young minds. One such song goes as:

O amaar gaon

Amaar gaonor maan rakhi

Mukolile najau ami

Paikhana loi jao

Ghore ghore paikhana

Ghore ghore pani

Onamoi bidhi

Ami solu mani

(O our village, we will maintain the dignity of our village, we will not defecate in the open, let’s construct toilets in every home, Let us follow these rules of sanitation).

This article is part of Sanitation Scribes project. For more information:

Teresa Rehman

Teresa Rehman

Teresa Rehman is an award-winning journalist based in Northeast India. She had worked with India Today magazine, The Telegraph and Tehelka. She is now the Managing Editor of The Thumb Print. She has been awarded the WASH Media Awards 2009-2010. She had recieved the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for two consecutive years (2008-09 and 2009-10) for the category 'Reporting on J&K and the Northeast (Print). She received the Laadli Media Award for Gender Sensitivity 2011, Sanskriti Award 2009 for Excellence in Journalism and the Seventh Sarojini Naidu Prize 2007 for Best Reporting on Panchayati Raj by The Hunger Project. She was also featured in the Power List of Femina magazine in 2012. Her two book are 'The Mothers of Manipur' (Zubaan Books) and Bulletproof (Penguin).