By Anil Gulati and Sravani Sarkar
NARSINGHPUR, MADHYA PRADESH, 9 March 2017 – There was much fanfare in south eastern Madhya Pradesh, central India, when this district became the first in the State to be declared open-defecation free. As the spotlight shone on the district, 280 kilometers from the capital Bhopal, its Chief Executive Officer Pratibha Pal was reluctant to be in the limelight.
“Please remember that this is a result of the dedication and effort of our entire district team, under the leadership of the District Collector. My predecessors had first turned Chawarpatha block in Narsinghpur open defecation free and so I thought why not the entire district?,” said Pratibha, who is also the head of the Panchayat and Rural Development Department in the district.
On the eve of Narsinghpur becoming open-defecation free Pratibha continued her rounds of the district that often include surprise monitoring visits to villages to ascertain their open defecation free status. In Murgakheda Village 25 kilometers from the district headquarters Pratibha’s amicable nature was on display as she had a friendly chat with a group of children. Once the children were comfortable in her presence she started to probe their knowledge on open defecation.
“Does anyone go out in the open to defecate?,” she asked, to which heads moved rapidly in denial.
“It can cause illness,” said nine-year-old Sita.
“The flies sit on the faeces and then on our food, contaminating it,” added ten-year-old Ashish.
The children all happily announced that all the houses in their village have toilets, as do all the schools and that everyone is using them.
Pratibha couldn’t help but smile as she invited everyone to give a round of applause for the “smart children”.
The CEO’s ease of interaction with all types of people in the rural communities she serves has caught the attention of villagers from across the district as well as her colleagues who are keen to emulate her dedicated and down to earth approach. Despite Pratibha’s humbleness members of her team insist that she has played a pivotal role in the district achieving open-defecation free status as part of the India-wide Swachh Bharat initiative.
“It is her dedication and focus towards the Swachh Bharat goals, and personal involvement in the entire awareness and monitoring process that makes a huge difference. Due to her attitude everyone involved in the campaign has developed a sense of team work and accountability,” said Rajesh Tiwari, Swachch Bharat Mission District Coordinator.
That dedication included the entire district panchayat machinery starting work at 4 a.m.
“A fleet of vehicles would head in all directions. The CEO personally led the efforts, remaining in the field for hours together with us most days of the week,” said Prabhat Kanoje, district renewable energy officer who also volunteers as a district mobilization officer for the open defecation free campaign.
While this required the CEO and team working above and beyond their usual working hours Pratibha took it in her stride.
“By using technology we were able to keep up with our daily work tasks. Since most of the time we were in field, the monitoring of all district panchayat work and service delivery improved dramatically. My personal schedule was affected somewhat, but then we had decided to do this within a time-frame and it was the top priority,” she said.
On one of her visits the quick-footed Pratibha Pal rushed down steep and rocky terrain to inspect a toilet in a villager’s backyard. After enquiring if the toilet is being used she asked the owner “Why did you construct the toilet here, it must be difficult to reach. Is it safe for you and children?”
These tireless efforts, personal commitment and shared vision by the CEO uniquely sets the officer and her work apart and remain an inspiration to all, said UNICEF Madhya Pradesh Chief Michael Juma.
“Due to her uniquely differentiated style of work in the district ‘Sanitation Champions’ have emerged, and as such have proactively facilitated communities to adopt safe sanitation practices by creating collective demand for behaviour change and putting systems in place to sustain open-defecation free,” he said.
Pratiba though is keen to reiterate that the credit goes to her team, and the leadership of her district collector and seniors officials which enabled her to lead the district to achieve its open defecation free status.
To sustain the momentum of an open defecation free environment and to advance the rights of children to survival in Narsinghpur district, then we must all embrace compelling WASH behaviours that contribute to child survival and growth such as continuous toilet use, handwashing with soap, safe disposal of child’s excreta and use of safe drinking water at all times, said Michael.