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Living the utopia: Bastar sports a new look

By Rama Srinivasan

Jagdalpur, Chhatisgarh : In October last year, the residents of Shankarpur, in Pharasgaon Block, took a strange oath. They solemnly swore by the name of Maa Danteswari, a revered deity in this part of the world, that they would never practice open defecation again. Anyone who breaks the vow will face social exclusion and a penalty. The village school’s principal V C Shukla narrates a familiar story that resonates across Bastar.

This has been the modes operandi of district administration to ensure the use of toilets. Of the 90 panchayats in Chhattisgarh that are going to receive the Government of India award for Total Sanitation – Nirmal Gram Puraskars 2007 (NGP), Bastar boasts of the maximum number of awardees – 27.

Any outsider knows Bastar as a remote and one of the most backward districts of the country. Hence, the quaint and idyllic images of village life in the scenic locales take one by surprise. Kumharpara in Kondagaon Block is not economically well-off, but bears evidence of conscientious efforts on part of its residents to make it presentable. The streets are spotlessly clean and the school children are well-turned out.

According to Amrita Singh, the aanganwadi worker, after the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) was initiated, mosquitoes have almost disappeared and children are healthier. A study conducted by the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development finds a qualitative improvement in health in Nirmal Grams, district programme officer Rajesh Singhie informs.

Bhuvanesh Chauhan, a resident of Shyampur village and Block member, says the 18 wards adjoining the village are already clamouring for the assistance to build toilets in their villages. The euphoria is so high that many don’t want to migrate anymore.

Sukli Poyam, the Sarpanch, said the construction was delayed by a month due to rains, and was completed by December 2006.

But the real challenge was to make people use the new structures. Troubled by the continuation of open defecation, the Panchayat instituted a penalty for defaulters and a reward for whistleblowers. As many as 22 people were caught and the public humiliation forced people to get used to toilets. Panach Ram, who caught four people, is quite virulent. “I asked them how the village could become Nirmal, if they don’t start using the toilets,” he says.

When asked if she has any ideas on how to use the prize money, Ms Poyam looked towards Mr Chauhan for an answer, who pointed out that Shyampur required a proper drainage system.

In this regard, Shankarpur has devised an interesting plan. Sarpanch Sonu Ram said the panchayat wants to employ the self-help groups officially for cleaning the streets with the prize money for a sum of Rs 5,000.

Along with the SHGs, the Kishori Balika Samooh (adolescent girls’ groups), have also contributed to the cause of cleanliness. The toilets have especially been a great relief to adolescent girls here. Pushpashanti, 16, said the girls didn’t have to miss classes during their menstruation cycles after the construction of toilets in schools.

The TSC has motivated the villagers to assert themselves. Their demand for tap water was recently met through their MP Sohan Kotay’s development funds.

But it is not a rosy picture all along. Tucked away in forests, Narayanpur Block’s Binjli panchayat is faced with a unique dilemma. Like the other villages, Binjli residents too are reluctant to talk about their problems to outsiders in front of government officials. But they are also wary of appreciating the TSC programme for it lies at the heart of the conflict area between the government and the Naxalites.

When the villagers first heard about the programme their response was negative, says Block member Sushil Kumar. But they eventually came around, after women’s self-help groups ran a door-to-door campaign to propagate its benefits. Women and children even held a rally to further the cause. The work in the villages of Binjli and Telsi was completed in October-November 2006 with the villagers contributing in terms of labour.

What has worked in the favour of the TSC programme in Bastar is that the district administration has treated it as top priority. Collector Ganesh Shankar Mishra claims the administration played upon sensitive issues to bring about a behavioural change. “Apart from administering the Maa Danteshwari oath, we highlighted the fact that toilets accorded safety and respectability to women. The response was immediate, especially among women, who went on to lead the movement from the front.”

 

 

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