As the daughter of a village aanganwadi teacher, Saritha had grown up seeing the problems of open defecation and activities to create awareness about its ill-effects. Later, armed with a PG diploma in liberal studies (Young India Fellow, 2016) from Ashoka University, Sonepat, she went on to work with SEWA and the Genpact Centre for Women’s Leadership, and had been looking for a full-time opportunity in socially-driven projects. Through the Zila Swachh Bharat Prerak (ZSBP) programme, Saritha finally found a platform that would allow her to contribute to the Swachh Bharat Mission’s (SBM) goals, and realise a personal wish too. “My main motivation is to see my own village, Gaddiganipally, become ODF one day,” she says. After enrolling, Saritha, 22, was deployed as a prerak in Jayashankar Bhupalapally district in March 2017. She was in for a tough initiation. Jayashankar Bhupalapally is among the most economically backward districts in Telangana, and it wasn’t surprising that only 19 percent of identified households had toilets. With the government incentive (protsahan rashi) coming in only after the toilets were built, funds required to begin construction was a problem.
Saritha quickly got down to work. The first step was to engage with villagers on a regular basis to learn about their concerns, and win their trust. Convincing people wasn’t the only challenge; she had to find ways that would reduce the upfront construction cost of toilets as well. The team came up with the idea of using fly-ash bricks instead of the regular red ones. These were lighter and hence less expensive to transport, which helped bring down cost of procurement. Leading fly-ash brick manufacturers like Nagarjuna Cements and Kamakshi Cements were roped in to supply these at a subsidised price for the programme. To better convey the grave health risks of poor personal hygiene and sanitation habits, the SBM team took the help of schoolchildren. In Gram Sabhas, the children were given a message to read that they don’t have toilets in their home and want their parents to build one. Saritha was also closely associated with a Mega Hand Wash Campaign conceptualised by the District Collector with support from UNICEF. This included a unique event where around 130,000 children from across more than 1,200 schools of Jayashankar Bhupalapally district washed their hands between 12.00-12.10 pm on a single day. These efforts started bearing fruit. By October 2017, when Saritha moved out, 32 percent households in the district had toilets, up from 19 percent in March. Meanwhile, the local SBM team at Jayashankar Bhupalapally continues to work passionately towards its goal of making the entire region ODF soon.
A different challenge
The situation in Jangaon district was slightly better — toilet coverage stood at 33 per cent and awareness about the SBM was higher too. This could be explained by its proximity to the state capital of Hyderabad, and the fact that Jangaon is economically progressive with better infrastructure than most other districts in Telangana. But there were other unique challenges here. Many of Jangaon’s residents believed that toilets didn’t fit into the vastu (a traditional approach to architecture that promotes harmony with nature) of their homes. A more urgent issue was that many who had built toilets were still waiting for their protsahan rashi or incentive, as new toilet numbers weren’t being recorded regularly in the MIS software. In fact, when Saritha joined, she found that around 70,000 new toilets hadn’t yet been geo-tagged. No wonder, barely seven out of 222 villages in Jangaon had been declared ODF so far. The first step was to ensure that these toilets were geo-tagged and the data updated on the portal. It was a massive exercise that eventually helped classify 148 villages as ODF. This also allowed villagers to receive their incentives, and helped create widespread goodwill for the programme. Alongside, the SBM team under Saritha’s guidance worked across the district to dispel superstitions and misplaced notions around construction of toilets. They organised Gram Sabhas and with the help of Swachhagrahis (field workers) visited homes and spoke to residents. In just four months, the results have surpassed all expectations, with over 96% villages in Jangaon now seeded with toilets. Saritha believes that her stint as a prerak is just the beginning of her personal journey to bring about positive change in society. “My field experiences over the past year have taught me new life lessons. I am more confident now about my abilities to bring about change,” she says.