Khumeshwar Sahu,21, organized the community in his village to pick up garbage and also approached their gram panchayat for dustbins. Supported by UNICEF, the programme recruits volunteers like Sahu from villages around Chhatisgarh.
By Diana Coulter
RAJNANDGAON, India, 4 October 2011 – When Khumeshwar Sahu, 21, walks the winding paths of his village, he’s happy to point out what’s missing. It’s the scraps of plastic, drifts of paper and other debris that normally litter most lanes across India.
But in the community of Badbhoom, where families make a tidy living from the surrounding rice fields, villagers now display the same meticulous pride in their living space. Khumeshwar helped with this transformation in his role as a community alert volunteer.
The alert programme, supported by UNICEF, recruits volunteers like Khumeshwar from villages around Chattisgarh. In a series of workshops, it trains them to help fellow villagers identify problems in their community and put them in touch with the right government programmes or authorities to fix them.
To get started, volunteers are given a checklist of potential issues in four areas: health, education, infant and child nutrition, and public engineering.
Waving his arm at brightly painted homes, freshly swept yards and neatly planted gardens, Khumeshwar says at first only a few people in Badbhoom were keen to have a clean village. But he got them organized to pick up garbage. Before long, the entire community joined in.
Next, he told villagers how to approach their gram panchayat (village government) and ask to have five large dustbins installed along the lanes. “We did all this good work and wanted people to maintain it,” he explains.
Pratima Sahu,21, displays her hand washing skills. Supported by UNICEF, the programme recruits volunteers like Sahu from villages around Chhattisgarh and trains them to help fellow villagers identify problems and means to solve them
In the same manner, the village adopted the idea of building toilets in every house so no one would use the fields. Khumeshwar and another alert volunteer, Gange Thakur, 20, helped the community access a government programme that assists with toilet construction.
Now, on the walls of many homes are bright yellow painted slogans that encourage people to keep using the toilets. Khumeshwar points to one painted sign across from his own home that says: ‘Use your toilet and be healthy’.
Standing nearby, his grandfather, Chhotelal Sahu, 77, says he’s proud of his grandson for volunteering. “He has developed the awareness of villagers about so many things,” he points out. “And the toilet programme is very helpful. We don’t have to go out of our homes at night and it’s good for the health.”
Motivating the community
The sarpanch (village government head) also says she’s been pleased with the alert programme and the volunteers’ initiatives. “They motivate people to come forward and inform us when there is a problem, so we can help,” says the sarpanch, Yogindri Sahu. “People are more confident about talking with us about things.”
Gange has also been encouraging pregnant ladies in the village to follow a government programme that pays them to give birth safely at health centres rather than at home. “At first, there was a lot of suspicion about this programme. They wanted me to go away and mind my own business,” says Gange. “But I told them: Everything I am doing is only for you, so why are you making obstacles for me because then my work won’t be as good as it can be.”
Gange says she has gained this confidence in dealing with people through her training. “This is also my home village, so people know I just want to help.”
About five kilometres away at a village called Khursipar, alert volunteer, Seturam Sahu, 21, helped his neighbours speak with a school teacher who constantly showed up several hours late for classes, while children waited. Now the teacher turns up on time.
Another volunteer, Pratima Sahu, 21, worked with villagers who were washing their cooking pots and other implements near the water pump. This practice was threatening the health of others, until she assembled people and convinced villagers to stop it.
Pratima also met with students at the local school and spent time teaching them how to properly wash their hands with soap before eating food or after using the toilet.
Each time, the alert volunteers approach people, their goal is to try to gently persuade them to take advantage of existing programmes and knowledge that will improve their community, says Pratima. “We don’t make anything compulsory or tell them what to do, we just speak politely, try to help and hope that they listen.”