Swachh Bharat Mission: Women take the lead in Himachal Pradesh

The state, with almost 60% of panchayats headed by women, tackled open defection by resolving the water crisis. It was declared open-defecation free in October 2016

By Ashwani Sharma
Published: Monday 30 September 2019
To sustain ODF status of her panchayat Talkehar in Himachal's Mandi district, sarpanch Kamlesh and members of mahila mandals visit houses to check if people are using toilets regularly. Photo: Pradeep Kumar To sustain ODF status of her panchayat Talkehar in Himachal's Mandi district, sarpanch Kamlesh and members of mahila mandals visit houses to check if people are using toilets regularly. Photo: Pradeep Kumar

In Himachal Pradesh’s Mandi district, a tall building in a corner of Prakasho Devi’s maternal house indicates the mountainous state’s long tryst with sanitation. The building is made of stones, neatly carved and placed with no fault or cleavage.

In the background, one can see Beas river passing through the ever-green forests. “This was the first toilet in our village Kothi. I must be 14 years old then,” said the 36-year-old ward member of Kunnu panchayat.

“One day, my grandfather Nathu Ram announced that he was going to build a toilet. He was a mason. He was probably intrigued by the design and technology involved in a toilet or was inspired by his military friends who would narrate their experience of using a lavatory.

“He dug a trench and fixed an ordinary toilet seat over it. All the 15 members of our joint family were enthralled by it,” Devi said.

Till then, like most other people in her village, they would trudge through the mountain slopes to find a secluded place in the jungle or along the nallah for defecation.

Devi, however, had to revert to the old ways when she got married in 2007. Very few households in her in-laws’ village Sivad, had a toilet.

While her husband installed one, using months of his savings, most others had to wait till Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) was launched in 2014. Today, all the 1,143 households in Kunnu have toilets.

“This was mainly because of the awareness created by mahila mandals (women groups set up under the sanitation campaign) and television advertisements,” Devi said.

Much before the entire state was declared open-defecation free (ODF) in October 2016, Kunnu had passed a resolution that barred the registration of new families until the proof of a toilet at home was submitted.

Panchayat pradhan Prem Singh said all the toilets built between 2017 and 2019 are improved with attached wash rooms and water supplied by the public works department. Water availability in every village is sustaining the sanitation drive, he said.

Achieving and sustaining sanitation has, however, not been as easy for villages where rain-fed streams are the only source of water. Consider Khanyari of Tharjoon panchayat, at an altitude of 2,500 metre. People in the village depend on a seasonal rivulet for most of their water needs.

“So, under SBM, when we asked people to set up toilets, they rejected the idea,” recalled Jabna Chauhan, one of the youngest village heads (sarpanch) in the country. She began persuading people by resolving the water crisis.

“We installed a water harvesting structure upstream of the rivulet to improve its year-round carrying capacity. Some 60 house-holds now have toilets and are using pipes to bring water from the rivulet to their toilets.

“By 2016, no one was going out for defecation,” Chauhan noted. In 2017, she was invited by film star Askhay Kumar to promote his movie Toilet: Ek Prem Katha and was also honoured with the Best Pradhan Award.

Water conservation schemes have also helped villages attain ODF status in neighbouring Hamirpur, one of the water-stressed districts in the state. Construction of toilets had never been an issue in this district, where most people have military background. But, not all would use toilets as water availability was a concern, admitted Ashwani Kumar, a school teacher at the Government Senior Secondary school, Balakrupi.

“Now, I can forecast a scenario about round-the-clock water supply in my area,” said Sukhwinder Sukhu, an Member of Legislative Assembly from Nadaun in Hamirpur. “It’s the result of new schemes to supply piped water to villages, and some work done in rainwater harvesting. With running water to flush the toilet, we have tackled open defection,” Sukhu said.

What also appears to have helped Himachal Pradesh achieve the ODF milestone so swiftly are mahila mandals and women sarpanch. Almost 60 per cent of panchayats in the state are headed by women.

In Mandi’s Talkehar panchayat, sarpanch Kamlesh has roped in mahila mandals who go house-to-house and check whether people are using toilets regularly. Taking a step forward, Kamlesh is now mobilising people to convert their wet waste into compost, dispose grey water from the kitchen into soak pits to allow groundwater recharge, recycle waste water in kitchen gardens and use plastic waste like polythene bags and mineral water bottles to make usable products.

Moving along the Beas, as one descends into the Kangra Valley, SBM seems to have entered into its next phase in Aima panchayat. It has put in place a door-to-door garbage collection system.

“Every day, we generate 9,000 kg of waste. The wet waste is processed in a composter that we have purchased for Rs 50 lakh, while plastic waste is sold to a Ludhiana-based factory that converts it into bricks,” said sarpanch Sanjeev Rana.

However, he added that the panchayat is clueless on how to handle faecal sludge from toilet pits.

Deepak Sanan, a promoter of community-led total sanitation, said early success of Himachal Pradesh has come at a cost. By 2012, some 84 per cent rural households had toilets. While this helped it attain the title of being India’s second ODF state (Sikkim being the first), a lot of toilets built before SBM have single pits and would soon start overflowing.

“We are trying to identify the panchayats where handling excreta and liquid waste could be a problem in the near future,” said RN Batta, secretary, Irrigation and Public Health Department of the state.

“Right now, we have decided to pick up 50 panchayats for setting up a common system for faecal sludge treatment on a pilot basis. Though this is not going to be an easy task given the state’s tough terrain and dispersed habitations, we will do it,” Batta noted.

Sanan highlights another factor that could derail the state’s achievement — an influx of migrant labourers. Open defecation by migrants, who work in orchards and fields and industrial areas, has already been a cause of concern for the state.

Labourers, working at the Parwanoo-Shimla and Chandigarh-Manali National Highway projects, are turning the riverbeds, roads and streams into places of open defecation.

The district administrations have been asked to address this issue, Rakesh Kanwar, secretary to Governor, who was Director, Rural Development Department till last month, told Down To Earth.

In Kangra, for example, they have compiled the data of all migrant labourers and provided them mobile bio-toilets. “But not all are using those,” he admitted.

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