Updated: Jun 25
Long before the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan promised full sanitation coverage of households, thousands of villages in remote Odisha had done unprecedented work on WASH (Water-Sanitation and Hygiene) through their institutions of self-governance.
This has been made possible with the perseverance and commendable work of the civil society organisation, Gram Vikas (GV) led by Joe Madiath. Joe has spent over 30 years working with the poorest communities in Odisha. Drawn there in 1971 to help communities ravaged by a cyclone in the region, he stayed on as an activist and focused on sustainable development projects. GV was founded in 1979. Today it has grown into one of the largest non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Eastern India working on a variety of issues with WASH being the primary intervention.
India ranks very low among all countries on the indices of water and sanitation. As per census 2011, more than fifty percent of the India’s population did not have access to safe sanitation and were defecating in the open. Access to sanitation was explicitly recognized as a distinct right by the UN General Assembly in 2015 (Sustainable Development Goal – SDG No.6). Lack of sanitation exposes individuals to many risks. It not only affronts to an individual’s dignity and rights, but endangers the rights to the highest attainable standard of health and to safe drinking water for others due to the contaminating nature of human feces.
GV originally focused on providing renewable energy for rural communities, building more than 54,000 biogas units. Over time, GV developed its more holistic model of development. WASH remains central to the work approach based on Joe's conviction that every family in a village must have healthy living practices and an improved quality of life before total development can occur.
“Each village is treated as a unit having its own water tank managed by the village community. This decentralization gives the people ownership over the water, says Liby T Johnson, the Executive Director of the organization while explaining the organization’s approach. The organization works on source sustainability and ensures safe water- supply, round-the-clock through tapped connections in toilet, bathroom and kitchen.
The first village that we visited was Tamana, one of the oldest villages of GV where the sanitation model began in 1997. Tamana is situated at the foothills of Kerandimal village, about 15 km from Orissa's Berhampur city in Ganjam district. The village belongs to the Kondh tribals whose mainstay is agriculture. On entering the village, the over-head tank stands tall as a symbol of the community’s contribution towards piped water supply at home.
The water in the over-head tank is being drawn from a 20 feet deep well nearby, catering to about 80 families. What is true for Tamana, and other such villages is that work begins only after the whole village agrees. To mobilise everyone to come together is a long tedious exercise, however it is seen necessary by the organization to create an equitable and inclusive model. The construction of the infrastructure is done by the villagers themselves, who are trained in masonry. Despite masonry being a male dominated domain, women too have become skilled masons because of this training.
Each house-hold receives 70 litres and pays a fee of rupees 50 for the upkeep and maintenance of the whole system.
GV has developed process steps for securing water supply and sanitation for the local community. Once the confidence and participation of all the families in the village are secured, a piped water supply system (PWSS) is established. The source could be a bore-well, sanitary well or a spring. The water from the source is then diverted using electric/ solar power or gravity flow into an overhead water reservoir and distributed through two or three taps in every household. The Village Executive Committee or the Village Water Sanitation Committee (VWSC) is formed for the ownership and management of the Water and Sanitation system. A village corpus fund is set up with an initial contribution of 1000 rupees per family. The amount is maintained in a bank as a fixed deposit whose interest income is used by the VWSC to provide financial assistance to the new families to build toilets and bathrooms. A maintenance fund is also managed by the VWSC to pay for regular upkeep and repair of the PWSS.
Building self-sustaining institutions of the poor for sanitation and hygiene was an uphill task that the GV team had committed themselves to. Gaining the confidence of the community to invest and find value in a new system did not come easy, it took years of constant dialogue and mobilization.
The design followed in the toilet construction in the villages is the twin-pit design model. The twin-pit design allows decomposition of fecal sludge in one pit while the other is being used, providing a safe way of emptying it. Single pits require un-decomposed sludge to be emptied manually or through expensive suction machines. The model also does away with manual scavenging, which is still prevalent in many parts of the country.
Government sanitation programmes, be it the SBM or its predecessor Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan have tend to focus on the construction of toilets and have often turned a blind eye to the issue of water scarcity. In a hurry to achieve universal sanitation within a stipulated time, water quality has been compromised to no bounds in the aftermath of these programmes. Recent CAG reports of some states that are ODF (Open-Defecation Free) status holders reveal that many toilets only exist on paper and several are defunct due to the absence of piped water supply. As per the latest National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey (NARSS 2018), only 29% of households with toilets had the twin leach pit model.
In a haste to meet targets, the design of the toilets was not made according to the government guidelines and in many cases people have made a single-pit toilet instead of the two-pit design. Single pits require un-decomposed sludge to be emptied manually or through expensive suction machines. With people making very deep pits groundwater and surface water quality become a concern as these pits can leach contaminants into the local aquifers. Moreover, the underlying nature of the aquifer can significantly influence the rate of flow of the contaminants.
A monitoring report by UN organisations highlights inequalities beyond toilet access by saying – “The human right to sanitation implies that people not only have a right to a hygienic toilet but also have a right not to be negatively affected by unmanaged faecal waste. This is most relevant to poor and marginalized groups who tend to be disproportionately affected by other people’s unmanaged faecal sludge and sewage”. Therefore, understanding field realities, context-related complexities and social norms can make all the difference to designing effective sanitation programmes that can improve lives. This has been demonstrated effectively by Gram Vikas.
WOMEN AND SANITATION
The issue of sanitation is very much a gender issue. Poor sanitation violates many human rights, including gender equality. There are no qualms about the fact that as managers at the household level, women have a higher stake in the improvement of water and sanitation services and in sustaining facilities. Women and girls have to bear the brunt for poor sanitation.
Women in some of the villages shared how having toilets and bathrooms with a tapped water supply has been nothing more than a blessing. “Before the whole system came to life, we would go in groups to defecate near the forest with one of us having to guard others. The forests have many wild animals. Going early in the forest would always worry us.” said the women.
The drudgery would amplify during the days of menstruation. “In the absence of water during the lean months of scorching summer, we had to rely on the water of the dug-out pond and make do with whatever little water we would get from it to manage our menstruation” said one of the women while speaking to our team. This was causing a lot of trouble to the young girls and women of the village. Absenteeism during menstruation and the spread of disease in the community are also critical problems mitigated by access to basic sanitation.
Also having a separate toilet and bathroom has meant so much for these women. It has provided safety and dignity, giving them a place to go whenever they need, without having to wait until dark or expose themselves during the day.
Adding another dimension to the water supply system, Nar Singh Pradhan of Nvasai village showed off the kitchen garden in his backyard that he is irrigating with the grey water from his bathroom. The grey water has been supplementing irrigation to grow sandalwood, drumsticks, guava, potato, green chilli and pumpkin for the past three years now.
Another bathroom’s grey water is being tapped into the small nutrition garden of bitter gourd and beans (as seen in the picture). Instead of the water being let out in the open which becomes a breeding ground for mosquitoes, this grey water is being channelized towards growing nutritious vegetables for the family.
GV’s model of toilets and bathing space is a conscious shift away from the common sanitation model of building just a toilet. Not only does it take cognisance of the dignity and privacy for women, the separate units ensure that members of a family do not have to wait long to use either of the rooms, which ultimately sustains behaviour change in using a toilet. It’s also quite remarkable as it debunks many myths such as “how rural people cannot use toilets”. Today, the GV model has been adapted by about 75,526 households across the states of Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradeshing, covering a total population of 4,03319. The work across these thousands villages is a lesson that the entire country needs to learn from. Most importantly, it testifies that rural poor can and will pay for better water-sanitation services and also manage its system if facilitated with the right model.