Children at sunset
When 12 -year old Hemalatha welcomes you at the gate of her school, she does it is with ease and panache. For she is the ‘chief minister’ of the Government Lower Primary School at Devarahalli, in Karnataka.
Hemalatha along with her five-member cabinet have effectively changed the levels of personal hygiene and general cleanliness in their village school, set in the middle of the predominantly agricultural belt of Tumkur district.
The government primary school at Harogere, also in Tumkur district, has a hard working ‘Chief Minister’ too in 12-year old Chetan. As soon as he arrives in school he checks to see whether the toilets have been cleaned, the garden watered, and then assigns jobs to each of his ministers according to their portfolios. He also picks up scrap of papers lying around. Thanks to these hardworking chief ministers, both these schools have well tended gardens, clean classrooms and toilets, apart from a general sense of well being and discipline.
Sukanya Subramanian, UNICEF’s Assistant Project officer, Education programme in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh says, ‘Children are the instrument of change.’
Children are behind the success of SWASTHH - School Water And Sanitation Towards Hygiene and Health, which has integrated community participation along with school and education. They have set their own cleanliness standards in their schools.
Watering the garden
Using the concept of making a child a school chief minister, assisted by a cabinet, a daily routine of checking whether their schoolmates had bathed, combed hair, and washed their faces was introduced. The school’s general cleanliness was also monitored.
Corrective measures and follow up by the students themselves have registered improvements. Tabulation of information has shown stepped-up levels of student hygiene and community standards.
This is not to say that there was no opposition from parents at various stages. Some protested that child ‘health ministers’ were in charge of keeping the toilets clean, while the ‘agriculture minister’ was only watering the plants.
More than a year and a half ago, when schools began Bio Intensive Gardens (BIG), nobody quite imagined that the school experiment would be practiced by teachers, parents and adopted by the local communities themselves.
The concept of using just 20 square feet for creating a small organic garden, turning the soil only once, seemed too radical. In a water scarce district, hand sprinkling water on plants, and eliminating pesticides use, have had an appeal beyond the schools’ walls.
These Bio Intensive Gardens have helped spawn alternate farming. Teachers have gone home and started their own small gardens. Schools have managed to develop seed banks.
To guarantee children actually attend schools, a community monitoring system was introduced some time ago. A process of choosing a well-respected leader from a cluster of 20 households ensured a good report card on the absence of children from schools, and the reasons for this. This partnership has proved to be effective in child protection and continuing education.
The route for effective health and hygiene has not been quick, but going by the response in these two schools, success is sure to follow.