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Overcoming the three year itch
" Overcoming the three year itch "

Singhbhum, Jharkhand  : Pitamber Soren is a lecturer. Every morning he walks five kilometres to reach the nearest bus stop where he boards a crowded bus to his college in Chaibasa, a town approximately 40 (??) kilometres away from his village Jhaprisole in the east Singhbhum district of Jharkhand.

Soren has a master’s degree in history. Yet, ironically, Soren would join the rest of the residents of his Santhali village, majority of whom are illiterate, in going to the fields when it came to answering the nature’s call.

However, in 2005 when a team of the total sanitation campaign (TSC), a central government initiative supported by UNICEF in Jharkhand, came to his village, Soren’s life changed forever. Not only was he the first to volunteer to install a toilet in his house but as village pradhan, he promised to get all 103 households in his village to follow suit.

“I knew that open defecation was not a hygienic practice. Nevertheless, it has being going on in my village for decades. Both my father and my grandfather always went to the fields. I also followed. But when the implications of open defecation was explained in detail by the TSC team, I was determined to change things,” says Soren

Soren joined hands with DevNet, a non-government organisation working with the TSC in Ghatshila block, of which Jhaprisole is a part. Together they went from door-to-door to persuade the rest of the villagers. Their persistence, often in the face of stiff opposition, finally paid off and his village was declared free of open defecation and his panchayat, Kakrisole won Jharkhand its first Nirmal Gram Puraskar.

This award was instituted by the central government in October 2003 to promote rural sanitation and is given to panchayats that have ensured that all households have access to toilets, are free of open defecation and have separate toilets for boys and girls in schools and aanganwadi centres.

Soren, who will receive the award on May 4 from President Abdul Kalam in New Delhi, is proud that his panchayat Ghatshila is among 12 panchayats from Jharkhand However, it has not been easy. According to Nirmal Kulkarni, deputy Commissioner, east Singhbhum, initiating behavioural change, especially among the tribals, was a big challenge. “This district is primarily tribal. I knew it would be difficult. In fact, we decided that we had to set an example before we could ask them to follow,” explains Kulkarni.

Therefore, the first step was to tell the TSC team comprising of teachers, aanganwadi workers, district administration officials block and village sanitation committee members that unless they installed toilets in their homes they can’t ask others to have toilet in their homes.

In the Santhali village of Fuljharna-Mudidihin in Kasmar panchayat, a majority of men continued to use the fields despite having a toilet in their homes. When discussions led to nowhere, the district coordinator teamed up with the block development officer, the pradhan and other active villagers to adopt a different strategy.

They put up a sign in the village informing residents that whoever was seen defecating in the open would be punished. Every morning the team spread out in the open areas surrounding the village and blew a whistle as soon as they spotted someone. Embarrassed at being caught red-handed, the men would retreat to their homes. “There was no other way. It was tough to stand out in the open from 5 am onwards in winter. Nevertheless, we did it because we were convinced it would get them to fall in line, “says Nirmal Singh, district coordinator, TSC.

It may have taken Jharkhand three years to win its first Nirmal Gram Puruskar since it was instituted by the GOI,  but the good news is that a beginning has been made. The fact that seven out of the 12 panchayats are in east Singhbhum clearly indicates that where there is a will, there is a way.

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