Water, environment and sanitation

Water, Environment and Sanitation


Low-cost toilets help Bengal target total sanitation

By Nitya Jacob

It is something most Indians do without thinking. But in rural West Bengal, open defecation is fast becoming a rare sight. The common early morning sight of bare bottoms has disappeared completely in East Medinipur. It has become the first Nirmal zila - a district where nobody defecates in the open.

East Medinipur, part of the erstwhile Midnapur district, began its campaign against defecating in the open in March 1990 under the Intensive Sanitation Project (ISP). UNICEF facilitated this project in co-operation with the Central and State governments. The partner NGO Ramakrishna Mission Lokashiksha Parishad (RKMLP) implemented it. UNICEF and RMKLP developed some 12 toilet options at affordable rates.

In 2000, the programme became the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC). It aims to improve rural quality of life by eliminating manual scavenging by 2007, stopping open defecation, building toilets in all schools and inculcating hygiene.

It is a paradigm shift in the government’s approach, from a top-down subsidy driven model to a more demand-led one. Subsidy is restricted to those below the poverty line (BPL). Even in BPL cases, subsidy is only 50 percent of the total cost that starts at Rs 550 for the cheapest latrine model. Others do not get any subsidy.

“The project is a success because of the close and smooth cooperation between all concerned stakeholders,” says TSC Coordinator with RKLMP, Chandi Dey. That has meant bringing together elected representatives of Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), government officials, NGOs and the public on a common platform, with a common understanding of total sanitation. Mr. Dey has been with the project since it began 15 years ago, and is the prime mover.

The results have been impressive. All 783,623 households in the 25 blocks of the district have toilets. Only 4.74 percent did when the programme began in 1990. All schools have at least one toilet unit comprising one separate urinal each for boys and girls. The goal is to have two units in each school by March 2007.

Secretary, DPRD, M N Roy, adds, “The campaign began with demand creation using our IEC materials, meetings, folk media, processions, etc. Communication for behaviour change has to be one-to-one. For this, we developed a village level cadre of motivators.” 

The strategy for total sanitation involved using printed material, folk songs, bauls, puppetry and street theatre. Teachers, PRI representatives, children or youth club members can become motivators. They are the marketing agents for TSC, getting Rs 20 as commission for each toilet constructed.

“We find that 80 percent of diseases in India are water borne, and open defecation is the root cause,” explains S N Dave, Project Officer, Water Environment and Sanitation, UNICEF, Kolkata. “It also contaminates water sources.”
TSC is completely decentralized. The project is a three-way partnership. Government and UNICEF are technical advisors and a local NGO or RKLMP the implementer. Each block has a rural sanitary mart (RSM) run by an NGO.

The NGO staff is trained in TSC objectives, and given seed money from UNICEF for a shed to manufacture squatting pans and toilet bowls. This also covers salaries of managers, masons and outreach staff for two years.

Total expenditure on the single unit base model starts from Rs. 550. This includes digging the pit, squatting plate and bowl, and installation, but not superstructure. 

The pour flush toilet is a circular pit, five feet deep and five feet in diameter, lined with a supporting honeycomb of bricks. The unlined bottom lets water and urine seep into the ground. The squatting plate and toilet bowl is fixed on top. Different superstructures can be built on top.

A toilet lasts 6-8 people around five years, after which they need to dig another pit. Humans produce a cubic foot of dry waste a year, becoming manure in about two years.

A family approaches the nearest RSM that sends masons to identify a suitable place for the toilet pit. The family digs it, masons make the honeycomb brick lining, and install the plate and bowl on top completing the basic toilet. Some opt for a concrete room around the toilet. Most prefer a superstructure of bamboo thatch walls and thatch roof.

“The subsidy component has been kept to a minimum,” observes State TSC Coordinator, S K Chattopadhyay, “to give people a feeling of ownership and pride. It also ensures continued utility and maintenance.”

Nandigram II block of East Medinipur became the first in the country to have toilets in all houses and schools, followed by the Haldia block. The entire district achieved total sanitation in March 2006.

The campaign has spread to other districts. In neighbouring Haora, the campaign started in 2001. Initially, people were unaware of hygiene, the dangers of open defecation and low cost toilets. The PRIs and community-based organizations were unmotivated and there was no coordination with RSMs.

A massive motivation and advocacy campaign soon changed that and politicians threw their weight behind TSC. In September 2006, it achieved its target of total sanitation.  West Bengal’s target is total sanitation in 18 districts in two years, or by 2008. There are 330 RSMs in the state run by 230 NGOs.



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