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Blessing in disguise

 
 
Assigned as a Zila Swachh Bharat Prerak (ZSBP) in two of the most economically disadvantaged districts in Tamil Nadu in May 2017, Darshan Kumar was confronted with a peculiar challenge. Owing to a long tradition of populist schemes by successive state governments, free benefits and gifts were doled out generously to the poor without any strings attached. Not surprisingly, when the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) team reached out to them for building toilets in their homes, Dharmapuri’s residents maintained that this too was the government’s responsibility. “Everyone has become so used to getting freebies from the government that they wanted toilets without spending their money or making any efforts,” says the 27-year-old computer science engineer, who had previously served as a state project manager for rural development in Gandhinagar, Gujarat. 
 
Thinking differently
Countering this mindset was the first task. It was crucial to educate and convince villagers about the health hazards of open defecation, and the need to take ownership of this change effort. Fortunately, Darshan was supported by a committed team of Swachhagrahis who had been visiting villages and conducting Gram Sabhas on this subject for some time. He galvanised these Swachhagrahis through focused training on IEC (information, education and communication) and IPC (inter-personal communication) activities. Darshan also ensured that the messaging was directed towards children, women and the elderly, since the men in the villages were usually away in Bengaluru seeking work as daily labourers during the non-farming season. Innovative techniques such as role plays were employed to motivate villagers. In areas where the toilet requirements were low, pre-cast toilets were brought in and erected under a ‘One-Day Toilet’ campaign. These toilets were inexpensive and could be set up in a day with only components such as pans and pipes to be assembled onsite. The villagers would themselves dig the pits for these toilets and were compensated for the hours worked, under the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act). A ‘Swachhata Marathon’ in Dharmapuri district further helped in building mass awareness for the SBM goals. 
 
Turning point
Around October 2017, rural Tamil Nadu was hit by a dengue epidemic. Villagers were worried and keen to learn how they could protect themselves from the disease. The SBM team saw this as an opportunity to engage with the villagers on how to deal with dengue, and also speak about the dangers that open defecation and poor sanitation were posing to their health and their lives. This worked very well, and people began to come forward to build toilets. It was now time to ensure that the incentive (protsahan rashi) from the Mission came in promptly for eligible beneficiaries. For this, Darshan worked on improving the back-end resources including re-training the MIS operators. With their help, data on built-up toilets was geo-tagged and updated regularly on the portal and shared with the Block Development Officer for timely disbursal of the money. Today, Darshan is proud of the fact that 99 percent households in Dharmapuri have toilets, and all eight blocks in the district have been declared open defecation free. This is no mean feat in a district which had the worst coverage in Tamil Nadu when he had begun. “Tata Trusts has given me the opportunity to work at the grass-roots level in a flagship programme like the SBM. This has been a very humbling experience as the range, scope and magnitude of activities is very large,” he says. ˜
 
 
Impact in numbers
 
Coverage:
Till May 2017: 53%
Till Feb/March 2018: 99%
 
Number of toilets built:
Till May 2017: NA
Till Feb/March 2018: 112,209
 
Number of blocks declared ODF:
Till May 2017: 0
Till Feb/March 2018: 8