These women from Self Help Groups in Orissa have solved the problem of open defecation in a very interesting way. They not only started patrolling the streets but also planted the holy “Tulsi” plant to stop people from defecating in the open. Meet the amazing whistle blowers and their story of making their block completely “swachh”.
Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Campaign) with a lot of fanfare and oodles of star power to inspire ordinary citizens to make all possible efforts to keep their surroundings clean and sanitary. This is the story of a group of women who decided to go in for a full clean up act in their villages much before the PM’s impassioned call.
Arati Behara, Anusuya Sahoo, Rajalaxmi Sethi, and Ammbu Behara are part of a brigade called the Whistle Bahini, drawn from various Self Help Groups in different villages of Jagannath Prasad block in Odisha’s Ganjam district, and they have launched an all out offensive against open defecation.
Every day, from 4 am to 6 am and then again from 4 pm to 8 pm, 30 women leave their household chores to take on a task they feel merits their urgent and undivided attention. For starters, in groups of three, they have taken to patrolling the main road that connects the block headquarters to their villages in a bid to stop people from relieving themselves in the open. Armed with whistles they fulfill their duty sincerely, reprimanding those who don’t listen to them. Next on their agenda is to motivate families to build a toilet in their homes and also put them to good use.
But how did the women band together for this unique sanitation crusade? And how did they come up with the idea of patrolling with whistles? Says Arati,
“Open defecation has been a long standing problem in our area. The main road leading into the block headquarters, where the government offices and the only college in the region are located, used to be impassable because that was where all the locals came to relieve themselves. So we decided to take matters in our own hands. All of us in the group are aware of the importance of maintaining proper hygiene and sanitation to ensure good health.”
As per the statistics of the UNICEF and World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 88 per cent of deaths due to diarrhoea can be directly attributed to unsafe water, poor sanitation and inadequate hygiene. The effects of open defecation and poor sanitation also adversely affect nutrition, development, economy, dignity and safety of women.
According to Census 2011, against a national average of 69.3 per cent, 85.9 per cent households in rural Odisha do not have a latrine. In rural Ganjam, 80.9 per cent of the over six lakh households still practice open defecation while in Jagannath Prasad block only 15 per cent homes have a toilet. The rest simply head out to the arterial block road that is a kilometre and a half long. The revenue office, panchayat office, primary school, girls’ high school, college, Integrated Child Development Services office, rural development office, micro irrigation office and a petrol pump – they are located along this road, which sees nearly 1,000 students and 500-600 people walk by everyday.
“The condition of the road is so bad due to open defection that one cannot walk without putting a handkerchief to one’s nose. During the monsoon, it becomes worse. So, earlier this year, the Block Development Officer (BDO) asked the Block Mahila Sanchyika Sangha (BMASS) to find a permanent solution to the problem. Although we had been conducting awareness programmes on hygiene and sanitation they did not lead to any real change in the attitude. So we decided to involve the women members of Self Help Groups (SHGs) to take on this critical task,” shares Dasarathy Tripathy, Project Officer, BMASS, a federation of SHGs in the block.
In 1998, as part of an effort to empower rural women and improve their financial and social status, the Ganjam District Administration had set up a block level organisation under the banner of Mahila Sanchyika Sangha (MASS).
Tripathy explains, “Like everywhere else, total sanitation coverage is a necessity in our block, too. In the last few years, we found that many villagers were suffering from perennial diseases like diahorrea and malaria here. The women in our SHGs as well as others were constantly taking loans to pay off their hospital bills. In the money they were spending on treatment they could easily build a toilet, purchase a mosquito net and arrange for safe drinking water. So we decided to launch a movement, as part of which we created the ‘Whistle Bahini’ groups calling on women SHG members as committed volunteers.”
In Jagannath Prasad block there are around 1,250 SHGs with 16,600 members. From this vast pool, at first, women from four SHGs were handpicked to be a part of this action group. “Within the first five days of our endeavour, we realised that it was not going to be easy to convince people to desist from open defecation. Apart from blowing the whistle we took to campaigning door-to-door to create awareness on water contamination and the advantages of using a toilet. But when still they did not pay heed to our messages we decided to plant the holy basil on either sides of the main block road. We planted nearly 1,000 saplings as we knew that people would never go for open defection near the tulsi because we worship it,” reveals Sasmita Sethy, another member of the Whistle Bahini.
This move finally had the desired effect. Within a span of one month – the movement began in September 2014 – the number of people coming to the main road to relieve themselves has come down drastically. However, this has lead to a serious issue: if they can’t go to the main road and they don’t have a toilet in their home where would they go to answer nature’s call? To get over this hurdle, for now, the women have identified some faraway fields that people can use.
At the same time, the move to push through applications for making toilets has been undertaken on a war footing. Informs Tripathy,
“We have discussed this with the BDO and submitted applications on behalf of the villagers for construction of individual toilet under the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA). Those who fall under the Schedule Caste/Schedule Tribe, small and marginal farmers and Below Poverty Line (BPL) categories will get added benefits under the NBA. Others will be given a subsidy from government or they would be allowed to borrow from their local SHGs to construct toilets.”
Of course, the Whistle Bahinis haven’t let down their guard yet. In fact, to do some rigorous night rounds they have asked the local police to station a couple of constables with them. “We do patrolling early mornings and late evenings but there were some villagers who still tried to go there. That’s where the inclusion of the local police has reinforced the message,” says Anusuya Sahoo, a Whistle Bahini member, who is happy that their block road is now completely open defection free.
Though SHG women have been known to tap into their collective strengths to increase economic prosperity and improve their social outcomes in terms of education and livelihood, putting their heads together for better sanitation has indeed set a positive example. Concludes Ranju Sethy, a vocal Whistle Bahini, “We have set a precedent in the region. Women from the neighbouring blocks are asking us to spread awareness on this issue in their villages as well. We all know that for good health, sanitation and security of women we should avoid open defection but it is our own negative attitude that is stopping from doing the right thing and building a toilet at home. However, the Whistle Bahinis have been able to bring about a change among people who are not really willing to accept new ideas. I am proud to be a part of this progressive women’s group.”
Watch the video here:
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