When NRIs took up sanitation and development initiatives in their native villages in Punjab

3rd Nov 2016
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In 2003, President Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam visited a small village in the Hoshiarpur district of Punjab. Kharaudi had done something he thought others could emulate. It had concrete roads, parks, a library, street lights running on solar cells and a septic tank to treat the village's sewage - all thanks to rich Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) of the village who thought that this was the best way to give back to their place of birth.

The project was the first of its kind not only in Punjab, but in India as well. Soon, many NRIs from Punjab began emulating this example and adopted their villages. The President was so impressed with the developments that he narrated Kharaudi’s success story during many of his public addresses.

Sadly, ten years down the line, Kharaudi seems to have lost the plot. The treatment plant is defunct, and the villagers don't want to pitch in for its maintenance. The independent committee, formed to manage the development work, lies defunct due to allegations of misappropriation of funds. The villagers are also at a loss when it comes to disposing of the treated wastewater coming out of the septic tank.

Thankfully, Kharaudi inspired many other villages and, fortunately, most of them have done better than the original model.

Sewerage work at a project village
Sewerage work at a project village

How it all began

It was in the late 1990s that Dr. Raghbir Singh Bassi and Dr. Gurdev Singh Gill, born in Kharaudi but settled in Canada, decided to do something about the squalor and filth in their village. The area would turn into a cesspool during the monsoon with stagnant water, overflowing drains and waste piling up. The duo approached other NRIs from Kharaudi and sought donations.

Around Rs 50 lakh was ultimately collected, out of which around Rs 20 lakh was donated by Dr. Bassi and Dr. Gill. The initiative moved the state government, which then decided to make a matching grant. So Kharaudi got a total of Rs 1 crore for development work. Villagers mainly contributed through voluntary labour and provided free transportation of construction material on their tractors.

Kharaudi develops

Construction work at a sewage treatment plant in one of the projects villages.
Construction work at a sewage treatment plant in one of the projects villages.

Four parks were developed, concrete roads laid and 22 solar lights installed. A cultural centre, guest house and a couple of computers for students were also added. Since insanitation was the biggest issue the NRIs wanted to deal with, two septic tanks, which could treat the village’s sewage, were constructed, and sewerage lines laid. Open drains were covered and all the houses were connected through sewerage lines taking the wastewater to the septic tanks. Such a provision also motivated those defecating in the open to construct toilets in their homes. A Village Life Improvement Board (VLIB) was formed comprising elected panchayat members and other residents to oversee maintenance.

Kharaudi was hailed as a new participatory model of development. Dr. Bassi and Dr. Gill then went on to start the Village Life Improvement Foundation (VLIF), which has till date helped around 10 villages script similar success stories, while work is on at five other villages.

The state government also came up with the ‘Plan Scheme NRI’ to support such initiatives. Under this scheme, 25 percent of the estimated cost of development work is raised by the villagers and concerned NRIs of the village, with the state government pitching in with the remaining 75 percent.

According to a comparative study done by Punjab University researchers in 2006, it was found that in villages that saw work happen under this scheme, 90.6 percent of families constructed toilets connected to sewer lines, whereas in non-project villages, more than 50 percent of families defecated in the open, while around 48 percent flushed into a pit. The work also reduced diarrhoea morbidity by 70 percent as the project villages had the prevalence of disease at 0.8 percent, as compared to 7.1 percent in non-project villages. The benefits also reached the marginalised, with around 25.6 percent of Dalit households lacking toilet facilities in project villages as compared to 71.8 percent in non-project villages.

Kharaudi loses the plot

Ten years since the inauguration of its development plan, the treatment plant is lying defunct. The independent committee, formed to manage the development works falling beyond the purview of the panchayat, also lies defunct due to allegations of the misappropriation of funds. Villagers are also at a loss about the disposing of the treated wastewater coming out of the septic tank. It is made to stand in a pond for ultraviolet treatment, but they don’t have any use for this water as there are no fields nearby and good irrigation water is easily available.

Since the treatment plant has not been functioning for the past few months, the pond is now full of untreated wastewater. Instead of getting the plant repaired, villagers are in favour of taking the sewage out of the village. “We are more interested in dumping the sewage to some far off area because that seems to be a permanent solution,” says Iqbal Singh, a resident of the village. In fact, the residents have already identified a five kanal land worth Rs 8 lakh near the fields where the sewage can be dumped by laying more pipelines.

However, instead of making things work among themselves, they are again looking for funds from NRIs and the state government. The initiators now feel they missed on an important component for development works. “I guess what we did wrong from the very beginning was not building community ownership of the work done. Since the NRIs and government pooled in the money, people remained just the users, rather than participants. Some amount of usage fee should have been made mandatory so that maintenance was possible,” says Dr. Bassi.

Thankfully, some of the villages that followed the example of Kharaudi did not make the same mistake.

The copycats make it work

Sewage treatment plant at Langeri village.
Sewage treatment plant at Langeri village.

Langeri, which is located close to Kharaudi, is one of these success stories. Around 20 NRIs from the village raised Rs 32 lakh. The matching grant from the state helped the village get a piped water supply, a sewerage system and concrete roads, besides parks and solar street lights. The village’s life improvement board charged Rs 2,000-3,000 from every household for a sewer connection.

The board, with its 10 members, is still very active and ensures the participation of residents. “Involvement of people in the work helps not only in ensuring community ownership, but also reduces the chances of corruption and poor work. We make sure that even the poor who can’t contribute financially put in labour during construction or repair works,” says Manjit Singh, one of the board members in the village. At Brahmpur in Ludhiana district, which was the second village to adopt the Kharaudi model, residents regularly pay Rs 90 as charges for water and sanitation facilities.

But none of the villages have yet been able to make good use of the greywater. Most of them have small streams flowing nearby, and water from the septic tank is simply diverted there. Others, like Kharaudi, are not sure about how to dispose of the water other than by letting it into the fields, which is not possible throughout the year as farmers prefer to irrigate their fields through canal or tube well water.

Can other states follow?

VLIF has paved the way for a considerably good model of development, superior to the conventional one provided by the government. It has not only ensured universal benefits irrespective of caste and financial status, but has also led to better utilisation of funds with the deeper involvement of people and officials.

VLIF takes Rs 1 lakh as a fee from the interested village for a preliminary survey regarding their requirements and budget estimates. Later, it facilitates the process and offers technical assistance, for which the foundation is paid three percent of the total cost under the scheme. Villages are also free to hire any consultancy agency to get the work done.

Under the scheme, the state government bears 75 percent of the expenses. To start with, the village spends 15 percent of the total budget, and the work is audited by an engineer from the Deputy Commissioner’s office. On approval, the government releases 25 percent of the total amount. The engineer further audits the work before the remaining 50 percent share of the government is released. After this, the village can spend its remaining 10 percent share.

The question remains whether this model of development can be replicated in other states to improve sanitation. NRIs and good water supply to serve the house-based toilets are important components of this model, both of which are abundant in Punjab. Hand holding, as done by VLIF, can deal with deficiencies often felt by villagers in the financial, technical and managerial capacities. Promoting similar models in other NRI-rich states like Gujarat and Kerala may be a good starting point.

Disclaimer : This article, authored by Manu Moudgil, was first published in India Water Portal.

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