Nagapattinam was the hardest hit district in Tamil Nadu during the December 2004 tsunami. The days following the disaster increased the community’s risk to infectious diseases. Inadequate sanitation facilities in their tin tenements added to the problem.
A volunteer task force was formed to bring about behavioural changes in hygiene practices of the community and create situations to motivate them to avoid unhealthy living. Started as an experiment in 10 shelters with 84 volunteers, the concept grew to include 350 volunteers, working in 42 shelters in the district.The volunteers’ work has served to raise people’s awareness on how practices such as washing hands with soap after defecation, before cooking food and before meals, using latrines, disposing garbage and safe handling of drinking water will lead to better health.
Ariyanattu Theru, home to 600 families, was not too long ago a mess of trash and overflowing gutters. It’s a different scene today: lanes are swept clean, drains cleared and garbage segregated into biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste.
Outside every shelter is a small pit dug to hold the water collected after vessels and clothes are washed. Toilets are cleaned every day and drinking only boiled water is an unwritten rule. “Even my grandchild insists on having boiled water,’’ says Sivagami, 55.
To make the residents in the area responsive to their environment, the team of 18 uniformed volunteers went door to door, explaining why sanitation and hygiene was crucial for them. “It was a slow process. Thankfully, they began to understand the necessity,’’ says Palaniammal, a volunteer.
Link volunteers act as a `link’ between the authorities and the tsunami-affected communities. They are selected from within the community and have knowledge of existing levels of hygiene in the area, making them an important point of reference to facilitate good sanitation practices. Each volunteer monitors 50 families to impart knowledge on clean living, and to establish real gains in terms of improved health conditions.
A change for the better
Six months ago, stagnant water surrounded Vadivazhagi’s home and undisposed garbage attracted mosquitoes in hoards. Vadivazhagi often picked a fight with the volunteers for constantly pinpointing poor hygiene standards in her lifestyle. “Now, all water drains into the pit outside and there’s no fish hanging to dry,” says Vadivazhagi, smiling.
To help children progress to a healthy life, volunteers hold sessions for them every week, to discuss why they must wear slippers to the toilet, wash their hands before and after each meal, and not dispose garbage near their home. “Now I throw all waste into the garbage bins provided, and wash my hands after using the toilet” says Sathyan, a boy in class VIII.
Supplementing the team effort, awareness campaigns conducted every month deliver messages of improving hygiene through song, drama and kummi (a folk dance of Tamil Nadu). Municipal workers also help the volunteers in their work.
Simply having access to sanitation has created a meaningful change in the hygiene practices of hundreds of families in Nagapattinam. A real testimony to the transformation is that when 40-year-old Thilakavathy picks up a cup to drink water, she will make sure the cup is clean and the water boiled.