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" Migrant brick kiln workers become a part of the rural sanitation movement in West Bengal "

Migrant brick kiln workers become a part of the rural sanitation movement in West Bengal

By the late 1990s, Itamogra-II Gram Panchayat (GP) in West Bengal’s East Medinipur district had made tremendous strides in ending the practice of open defecation. By 2004, almost every household in the administrative area had toilets, all in use, and every government-aided school had sanitation facilities.

This was in keeping with the district’s rapidly progressing Total Sanitation Campaign. An intensive demand-responsive sanitation programme combining a holistic view of health and hygiene along with social mobilisation, awareness campaigns and a decentralisation of the delivery mechanism for sanitary hardware, the TSC powered the district’s success story.

Itamogra-II Gram Panchayat, under the dynamic leadership of its president, Sudhansu Shekhar Barik, had just about everything in place to become a suitable aspirant for the Union Government’s Nirmal Gram Puraskar, an incentive scheme which rewards villages for instituting a clean environment.

But it had a unique problem that came from one of the few industries in an area where the population depends largely on farming for a living.One of the principal reasons for the success of the rural sanitation programme in West Bengal is the synergy between the Panchayati Raj Institutions, UNICEF, private enterprises, non-governmental organisations and rural youth clubs, as evident from the Itamogra experience.

There are about 25 brick kilns in the Gram Panchayat administrative area with more than 5000 migrant labourers from neighbouring states, who live for nine months of the year, alone or with their families, in very basic rooms near the kiln. Till the Panchayat decided to intervene, these workers would defecate in the open, soiling the environment of the hamlets of Itamogra GP. “Eradicating open defecation was a distant dream if these people could not be included in the programme fold,” says Barik.

He decided to take up the matter with the brick kiln owners. “Every morning on my way to work, I would visit a brick kiln owner and explain to him how essential it was that he should look after the basic needs of his workers if they were to stay fit and work to their full capacity, and not fall prey to disease.”

The panchayat leader and members manage to convince the brick kiln owners of the need to sensitise their workers about the need for sanitation and to construct community latrines for them. “The kiln owners did not get any subsidy for this. We provided them technical assistance with the help of UNICEF and Ramkrishna Mission Lok Shiksha Parishad,” Barik adds. The faith-based NGO has done catalytic work in sanitation in East Medinipur in mobilising people and in setting up chains of rural sanitary marts by training and employing local people, many of them women.

Idris Ali has been running a brick kiln in Itamogra for over 18 years. He usually has over 100 migrant labourers working at his kiln all year, except during the monsoon season. He says that after speaking with Barik several times, he was convinced of the need to build sanitation facilities for his workers and he constructed a row of about 8 to 10 latrines at a cost of about Rs. 1 lakh.

Today, all the brick kilns in Itamogra have toilets for their workers. Itamogra-II GP was awarded the Nirmal Gram Puraskar in 2006. “Open defecation has now become history in our panchayat,” says Panchayat member Mayarani Dalpati. “But it would not have been possible without including the migrant labour of the brick kilns in the sanitation programme.”

And that is not the end of the story. Itamogra’s sanitation success story is no longer restricted to the village boundaries. Its ripples are being felt in some of India’s most backward regions where the sanitation movement is still to take off.

“Hum logo ka udhar bhi banna chahiye (toilets should be made in the villages we come from as well),” says Dulal Munda, 29, a worker at Ali’s brick kiln, who says he never used a pucca (permanent) toilet before. What he appreciates most is the sense of security the toilet gives his young wife.

Munda’s co-worker Ramlal Hembram from Mayurbhanj District of Orissa echoes this: “Hamara udhar bhi banna chahiye,” he says.

The ripples continue to widen.

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