What will it take to make India truly open defecation free?

Zarina Screwvala, Co-founder of Swades Foundation, writes about how community-led efforts can impact sanitation initiatives.
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Imagine a situation where you wake up in the morning, you rub your eyes and make your way to the toilet to continue your morning rituals, but find someone taking away the toilet from you. How will your morning look? I know it is a scenario we don't even want to dream of, but, it saddens me that many households in rural India still lack the basic necessity of a functional toilet!

Manjulabai Bhiva Bhandkoli from Sonoshi village in Igatpuri, Nashik, waits till dark to answer nature's call. At the age of 65, she and her 35-year-old daughter get up at 4 am, cover their face, and venture to a field located outside the village to relieve themselves. They fear for their safety, as animal attacks and insects bites are common.

If they miss their morning routine, they have to wait for the sun to set and only in the late evening, can they step out to attend nature's call. Manjulabai and thousands of families like hers have lived their life in this misery, and Manjulabai fears that her daughter too will have to bear the same fate in the long run. 

Manjulabai Bhiva Bhandkoli and her daughter don't have a toilet in their house like thousands of other families in Rural India.

I remember a visit paid by Amitabh Bachchan to our geography, when we were showing him toilets in schools and the girls of the school were telling him how much it has helped them. As we were walking away, a little boy piped up and said, “it’s also helped me, I too am scared of being bitten by snakes when I go into the fields.” Indeed, toilets are a blessing for all.

Despite the massive push for sanitation under the Swach Bharat Mission, the families of Sonoshi village are still awaiting a toilet.

Owing to overpopulation, cultural and social norms, high cost of toilet construction, lack of water and upkeep and maintenance of constructed toilets - tackling the sanitation crises in India remains a herculean task. 

Women with Swacchta Rath.

Where does the nation stand in rural sanitation?

While the nation was declared open defecation free under the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) in 2019, the National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS-5) data highlights that over 43 percent of rural households in India still don't have access to toilets.

The pandemic further slowed the progress of construction of new and maintenance of toilets, limiting the usage of toilets in rural India and the rural communities were invariably opened to threats and risks of open defecation. 

These challenges halt the holistic development of rural communities. Safe sanitation is the precursor for protecting children under five years of age from life-threatening diseases, overall health and wellbeing of rural families, menstrual hygiene and school attendance, especially for girls, to name a few. The COVID - 19 pandemic only demonstrated the critical importance of sanitation and hygiene. 

Community actions that can be taken to ensure villages are free of open defecation and sustain their ODF status -

Individual household toilets are a must

It has been one of our biggest learning that individual household toilets result in a sense of pride, better usage and maintenance. We need to ask ourselves if it were my mother living in the village, what would I want for her? Certainly her own individual household toilet.

Ensure community buy-in

Another learning from our experiences in rural Maharashtra is that anything given for free is less sustainable. Ensuring community ownership or buy-in gives community members a stake and a sense of pride in the process.

Rather than pushing the community to construct a toilet for themselves, the need should come from the community. They should contribute to the process, if not financially, through sweat equity. The sustainability of maintaining the ODF status for rural communities cannot come without strong community ownership. 

Community-led total sanitation

Paru, a single mother from the tribal community of Vasundhe Dhagarwadi village, in Raigad, Maharashtra brought all the women in the village together and mobilised each household in the village to construct a toilet for their health and safety.

Along with the support of a non-profit, she conducted home visits and debunked the myths and prejudices community members had in their minds regarding having a toilet in their homes.

The women also performed street plays and folk dances to advocate behaviour change in the community. This is an example of community-led total sanitation. These initiatives adopt behaviour change strategies and create awareness on the need, use and maintenance of the toilets. 

Paru with community members.

In Raigad, many community members also organise rath yatras (chariot festivals) which create a lot of excitement in the community. Vans holding fully fabricated toilets move from one village to another, advocating the impact of a toilet on the holistic development of rural families and their villages.

They also organise night walks, where a torch (mashall) is passed on from one village to another, creating awareness in the communities for safe sanitation and construction of toilets in their own home. 

Rathyatra in raigad for community awareness

Creating nigrani samitis

Village Vigilance Committees act as whistle-blowers for community members, who despite having toilets, continue to practice open defecation. They monitor the upkeep and need of new household toilets in their village.

In Raigad, the Nigrani Samiti at Sai Kond village uses festivals and national holidays to regularly update the villagers about safe sanitation practices and conduct village cleanliness drives.

Mashal Pheri - a community awareness session for ending open defecation

They are determined to maintain their village's ODF status. This model with the support of a non - profit organisation has been replicated in many villages across Raigad and Nashik. This is a sustainable, replicable and scalable solution for community members to take ownership.

All these community-based actions require collaboration amongst ALL stakeholders - community members, district administrations, corporates, village institutions and non-profits. Over the years, we have witnessed a shift in the behaviour of community members contributing to making the villages free of open defecation. These actions act as a catalyst in maintaining the ODF status of villages.

We have witnessed an overall improvement in the quality of life of women, where they are safe from the possibility of snake and other reptile bites and can relieve themselves without holding on for hours. 

Post the success of the Swachh Bharat Mission, there is a need to maintain the momentum created under the initiative. If we plan to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals 2030, the nation has to act and adopt a bottom-up approach to ensure rural India stays open defecation free. 

Edited by Anju Narayanan

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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