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International Learning Exchange 2007-Rural India turns classroom for water and sanitation professionals

© UNICEF/India/2007
Four inspecting a soak pit

New Delhi – For over a week in September, villages across India turned into classrooms for a group of water and sanitation sector professionals from countries as far off as Mozambique, Ethiopia, Sudan and Cambodia.

From September 18 to 28, the International Learning Exchange (ILE) 2007, organized by UNICEF in collaboration with the Indian government, gave 81 participants from 20 nations an intense experience of the achievements and challenges faced by this vast country of huge diversities in meeting two basic requirements of all people for a healthy life – water and sanitation.

The ILE programme, introduced for the first time in 2006, provides a unique opportunity for sector professionals from other countries to make field visits in India and interact with the rural community, NGOs and officials and gather vital learnings from their experiences.

The participants divided into groups according to four modules – (A) Accelerating Rural Sanitation: Systems and Institutions – which was again split into two – A1 and A2 – due to the large number of applicants; (B) WASH in Schools;  (C) Arsenic Mitigation – Challenges and Opportunities and (D) Wise Water Management and Fluorosis Mitigation.

The groups concurrently traveled to nine states in India where UNICEF partners the state government in providing strategic inputs in the implementation of water and sanitation schemes. Each group traveled for eight days and visited two different states each. The states visited were West Bengal, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh.

The 10-day programme was designed and conducted by the Water and Environmental Sanitation Section of the UNICEF India Country Office in cooperation with the central Ministry of Rural Development and the governments of the nine states.

The ILE delegates visited village primary schools, interacted with the children and teachers and discussed community involvement with elected representatives of India’s three-tier local self-government system known as the Panchayati Raj that has been given the mandate and the resources to implement the government’s key programme for the sector – the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC).

The delegates also met field workers and village motivators who have played a key role in spurring the sanitation movement in India and heard their stories first hand. They saw school sanitation facilities, visited rural supply marts which play a key role in the sanitation supply chain, interacted with women masons, saw household latrines, water-testing laboratories, arsenic removal plants and innovative waste recycling systems.

© UNICEF/India/2007
A child-friendly toilet in Varanasi district

On several occasions, they saw street plays, skits,– the whole range of the communication tools in action. Overwhelmed by a show of such IEC tools at Raghunathpur village in West Bengal East Midnapur district, Kulule Mekonnen Dufera, an official with Ethiopia’s Ministry of Health took the stage for an impromptu speech. “I liked, learned and was inspired by your IEC material. You involve the elderly, the middle-aged as well as the children who are the guardians of the future,” she said.

Fiona Ward of UNICEF Denmark and Shirin Hussain, programme communication specialist with UNICEF Bangladesh, were among the many participants who listened with rapt attention as bright-eyed children in classrooms kept them engaged with accounts of their ministerial roles and responsibilities in school sanitation cabinets.

“It was great to be able to talk to children in their own learning environment,” Fiona said. “This enabled the children to show us some of the things they made as part of their learning curriculum and we observed what resources they had - I received a quite a few lessons on science,” she added smiling.

The delegates said they had much to take back to their countries and discuss with their national partners. These included India’s successful Nirmal Gram Puraskar programme, an award scheme for clean village environment, a range of communication tools and the story of the success of decentralization and community involvement.

Innovative technology that figured high on their list of replicable features were the India Mark 2 handpump which helps to push water up to an overhead tank during routine use and locally-made arsenic removal filters, water-testing kits used by schoolchildren and innovative methods of waste and grey water re-use.

The ILE participants provided feedback as well. They expressed concern – on sustainability of programmes including the Nirmal Gram Puraskar, on maintenance and on funding.  They had some useful suggestions like safe water management plans, greater linkage between schools and community and a need to focus on “backward” states.

At the debriefing session organized in New Delhi on September 28 the delegates highlighted key issues, interventions and some learnings from their own countries.

Their general conclusion was that India had a difficult task ahead in the rural water and sanitation sector but the programme was going in the right direction. “What we have seen is very encouraging. We will take back learnings to our country and hope to have as much success as you have had,” said Saaondo Chihi Anom of UNICEF, Nigeria.

Mr. A. Bhattacharya, Secretary with the Ministry of Rural Development said “Their recommendations will be considered by the Rural Development Ministry in its work plan for 2008-2009.”

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