How Kerala is Getting Ready to Become an ‘Open Defecation Free’ State by November 1

As Kerala makes headway in becoming ‘open defecation-free’, agents of change in the state assume a critical role in the mission.

The Government of Kerala has declared the state will become ‘open defecation-free’ (ODF) by November 1, 2016, coinciding with Kerala Piravi Dinam or “the birthday of Kerala.”

To complete the construction of nearly 2 lakh toilets, across 941 panchayats, in one of the most populous states in the country with a challenging geographical terrain and demographics, is indeed a daunting task.


Training being imparted by Costford team on how to use reinforced bamboo for toilet walls in tribal areas

Source: Costford

The construction of toilets in hamlets in remote hilly areas of the Attapadi region in Palakkad district, and coastal areas such as Alappuzha district, presents not only enormous technological challenges but is expensive as well.

“Grama panchayats are playing a pivotal role in this. They are driving this project along with other local bodies and self-help groups,” Shri K.T. Jaleel, Minister for Local Self Governments, told The Better India (TBI).

“The Kerala government is taking a proactive role. While the Swachch Bharat Mission will provide the funds, fund transfer will take time. Panchayats have been advised to use their own development funds in order to meet the deadline,” says Shri L.P. Chither, Project Management and State Nodal Officer for Swachch Bharat Mission.

Suchitwa Mission, the state nodal agency for sanitation, and Swacch Bharat Abhiyaan are implementing the plan. Funds are disbursed through the agency to local bodies. Kudumbashree, a community network that works in tandem with local self governments for poverty eradication and women empowerment, has joined hands with Suchitwa Mission to train women in the construction of toilets.

“Kudumbashree is the main ground level resource and many of our activities are carried out by them. In Kerala, almost all the women belonging to the lower income group (LIG) belong to Kudumbashree. Most of our beneficiaries would also belong to Kudumbashree. We reach them through this network,” says Dr. K Vasuki, Executive Director, Suchitwa Mission.

Historically, the tribal areas have been outside the realm of development. Pipelines have not reached the hamlets and water is scarce. Women often have to carry water for their domestic chores and for use for defecation of others.

Even where there are toilets, they have fallen into disuse as many village elders prefer open defecation. Meanwhile, the depleted forest cover makes it difficult for women to defecate in the open.

Completed toilet, Panayam GP, Kollam

Completed toilet, Panayam GP, Kollam

Source: Suchitwa Mission, Government of Kerala

“In 2014, faced with severe malnutrition and high infant mortality rates, we had started community kitchens in the Attapadi block, which is inhabited largely by tribal communities. At that time itself, we realised open defecation was a serious health issue,” says Dr. Seema Bhaskaran, COO Attapadi Comprehensive Tribal Activity Development Project, National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM).

“There are several cultural issues as well. Even if they have toilets, many don’t use them. In some tribal hamlets, if a father-in-law uses a toilet, then the daughter-in-law cannot use it. That is why we are focusing on community toilets, separated by gender, in such areas where there is water facility – where they can wash their clothes, bathe the children, etc., and thereby reduce the burden on women,” reveals Dr. Bhaskaran.

Roping in change agents is crucial to making the ODF mission a true success.

Rural Sensitization Camp By students of Rajagiri College, Attapadi District

Rural Sensitization Camp By students of Rajagiri College, Attapadi District

Source: Suchitwa Mission, Government of Kerala

Recognizing the need for behavioural change in tribal areas, it is essential to utilize the services of Kudumbashree and neighbourhood groups for continuous interpersonal communication. This will help create awareness regarding the ill-effects of open defecation.  “We will continuously engage in this educational process in each hamlet, which will culminate on December 10, 2016, International Human Rights Day,” says Dr. Bhaskaran.

The NRLM is, in fact, taking a larger view. Construction work, hitherto under the control of contractors, is now being taken up by the tribals themselves.

“Livelihood for the tribal youth is a huge issue. Many are unemployed. This is the first time the construction work will be done by them. Until now, only contractors have undertaken such jobs and exploitation of workers has been rampant.  Currently, the direct involvement of the community has led to huge confrontations. Despite this, we hope to finish training by September 19, after which construction will commence,” reveals Dr. Bhaskaran.

In the coastal areas, change management activities are being activated through several NGOs. Field level volunteers create awareness by visiting people door to door. The ODF mission can be successful only if various stakeholders keep up the momentum. 

“We are working with Costford, an NGO that has developed new low cost construction technology. We engage with students of social work colleges who conduct surveys and campaigns in difficult areas. We have identified 39,120 toilets in critical areas, which cost more. Additional funds are required. Hence, we are trying to get CSR funds. Some companies have supported us, such as Malabar Group. Some local cooperative banks and resorts in the coastal areas are also coming forward,” says Sri. Ameersha R. S, Programme Officer (CCDU), Suchitwa Mission.

“Right now, we are training a group of women masons identified by Suchitwa Mission, in low cost construction methods using indigenous materials such as bamboo reinforced with mud. We have already started our training, mainly in Attapadi in Palakkad district and Thrissur district so that the tribal communities can start the work soon,” says Mr. Sudhir, Member of Costford.

When TBI contacted The Malabar Group, Mr. Valeed, Head of CSR, elaborated, “For the ODF initiative, we are providing septic tanks and WCs. We work with the block level samitis. While the beneficiaries and requirements are identified by them, we support in kind – as long as our criteria of the beneficiary’s land and house size is met.”

Students of social work are working hand in hand with local bodies doing ground work, creating awareness and running campaigns. In some areas where the terrain is not easily accessible, transportation of materials is not only difficult but expensive as well. “Students have transported bricks and cement and have even supported the initiative by digging pits, clearing the area, etc,” says Shri Chither.

Dr. Anish K R of Rajagiri College, speaking to TBI, explains the role their students play. “The Association of Schools of Social Work in Kerala has 46 member-colleges across Kerala. Every district has been linked to a school of social work and they align to the planned programs. Our students went door to door to verify the authenticity of these applications and reports. Once these toilets are built, the challenge is to make them use it. Behaviour change work is next and we will contribute as we are advised.”

“We have supported in terms of field verification in the Peermade Grama Panchayat in Idukki District. Our students verify whether households have sanitary latrines or not to rule out any false applications,” reiterates Dr. P. Saleel Kumar, Assistant Professor, Marian College.

Enormous efforts from several tiers will be required to complete the project on time. While the government is confident of meeting the deadline, the need of the hour is to bring about change in behaviour and practices. It is heartening to see a multi pronged approach involving the state government, administrative bodies, NGOs, corporates, student communities, and self-help group groups to ensure this happens.

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About the author: Rati is a qualitative researcher by profession, with a deep love for travel, people, art and culture. In her spare time she likes to read books set in cross cultural backdrops, write on socially relevant topics and run marathons

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