With armour of self-reliance, Swacchta Volunteers (SwaVos) sweep up a revolution

Time, energy, money—they are ready to give it all.

Azera Parveen Rahman
Girls washing hands in school.
24 June 2019

Time, energy, money—they are ready to give it all. A new army of Swacchta Volunteers (SwaVos) in Telangana has donned the cap of self-reliance to make their homes, schools, and villages clean and healthy, sweeping up a revolution of a different kind.

Most stories end with good winning over evil. No one knows what happens after that. Does good continue to reign?  As 25-year-old Sirisha Permala knows, often, the battle after the victory is an uphill task. And this is why this young girl sat in a circle with others of her kind in a school compound in Veldhi, Telengana, listening intently how they could ensure that their villages—declared open defecation-free two years back—continued to remain so; how water, sanitation, and hygiene could remain a top priority. Sirisha was to get engaged the next day, but here she was, with the rest of the group of Swachhta Volunteers (SwaVos) who have worn the armour of self-reliance in keeping their environment clean and healthy.

Teachers and children sitting in the ground.
Teachers and children sitting in the ground.

A unique movement of voluntary civic engagement at the ground level in the bigger cleanliness drive, SwaVos was born as an idea by Unicef that got the wholehearted support of the Karimnagar district administration to flag-off as a pilot project in 2018. The aim—of further instilling a sense of ownership and complementing the Swachh Bharat Mission—immediately resonated with a varied group of people. So when the SwaVos mobile app was launched in July last year, registrations from enthusiastic volunteers poured in. 

Girls learning hand washing from a teacher.
Girls learning hand washing from a teacher.

Engaged to her work: Sirisha

Sirisha was one of those who registered herself immediately. A student of Masters in Social Work, she is from a village called Godavari Kani and travelled a distance of 60 km to attend the SwaVos meeting in Veldhi, both of which are in the Karimnagar district.  “Distance is not a deterrent for me,” she smiled, and went on to name the six villages, each at a distance of 80-90 km, where she had been to over the last two months as a SwaVos. She spent INR 1,000 (USD 13.97) on these trips; a SwaVos is free to choose whichever village she or he wants to visit.

A girl washing her hand with soap in front of a teacher.
A girl washing her hand with soap in front of a teacher.

Sirisha is one of the 54 lead volunteers who took part in a two-days training programme, organised with the support of IKEA and Unicef, and local partners in October, 2018 on issues such as sanitation, hand-washing, and menstrual hygiene.

“As a SwaVos, when I go door-to-door and talk about the importance of using toilets, I also co-relate it to other issues, like safety of women and menstrual hygiene which can be compromised if you go outside,” she said.

Grey hair, steely grit: Madadi Aruna

Sitting close by, 70-year-old Madadi Aruna nodded to whatever the young girl had to say. The eldest among the 30 SwaVos who were in the meeting that day, Aruna is from Veldhi itself and said that becoming a Swachhta Volunteer appealed to her because it resonated with her belief of serving people selflessly. Moreover, she could see the difference that the movement was creating. “Earlier, there were hardly any toilets; going out in the open was the normal thing to do. But now everyone has a toilet, and we do door-to-door campaign to motivate people to use them. We volunteers also clean the streets,” she said.

Aruna also donated INR 100 (USD 1.40) to a unique ‘soap bank’ created in the Zila Parishad High School, Veldhi—where they had their meeting—in an effort to sustain the WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) momentum that had built up amongst the school children. The initiative stemmed from a visit by the volunteers along with the cluster facilitator, Kalyani, to the school when they cleaned the toilets and organised a few activities. Here they realised that while the children did wash their hands before food, they had no soap. Thinking on their feet, the team decided to donate money for the school to buy soap for the children. The village self-help group members joined in, and it was decided that a soap carton would be placed in the school and whenever that goes nearly empty, word would go out, and anyone could donate any amount to fill that back up. Sirisha, for instance, had donated INR 50 (USD 0.70).

Teaching life’s lessons: K. Anita  

When dedication and enthusiasm run high, and there is a mixed group of people, interesting ideas are bound to be aplenty. K. Anita, a school teacher in the Kondapur High School in the Jagtial district, and a Swachhta Volunteer, for instance, decided to make the toilets in her school colourful and more attractive in a bid to detach ‘embarrassment’ for the girls.

“Girls were earlier embarrassed to be seen near the toilet. I decided to paint a pair of wings on the wall of the toilet, and wrote, ‘Come, fly with me’.

Not only are the girls now more comfortable going there, but it has also become a popular ‘selfie’ point!” the teacher said.

Encouraged, she used her own finances to paint the walls of the other toilets and write messages on child labour, the environment, and on the importance of education. She also helped repair the school water tank.

A man washing his childrens hands with soap and water..
A man washing his childrens hands with soap and water.

Fist is stronger than five fingers: Madhavaram Manohar

Since it has been launched, the SwaVos mobile app has registered 2,200 volunteers. It has started off a kind of motivation chain reaction. Twenty-five-year-old Madhavaram Manohar, a SwaVos for instance said that theirs is a group of eight friends who strategise their work and plan visits to different villages.

In Gangipally—Manohar’s village, where he started his work from—the friends visited the primary school and found that it had a non-functional toilet, and no taps, resulting in no one—the children, the cook—not washing their hands. “There was a water tank, which my friends and I first repaired and cleaned. On speaking to the Sarpanch, we found that there was un-used construction material with the Gram Panchayat which could be utilised to make the water taps functional. We also contributed INR 200 (USD 2.79) to buy soaps for the school, and convinced the Sarpanch to provide additional soaps when required to keep the system going,” Manohar elaborated. After their intervention, the school toilet is now functional, and taps have running water—pumping an immediate dose of satisfaction in the group of young boys.

“The SwaVos training programme (supported by IKEA and Unicef) had helped us visualise what a model village should be like,” Manohar said, “There is no greater satisfaction than seeing that come true by your own work.” He dedicates two days in a week, outside his job, to do voluntary work in villages.  

SwaVos keep the ODF momentum going higher

Karimnagar and Jagtial—both ODF districts—were found to have 8 per cent and 9.6 per cent gap respectively in toilet usage by the cluster facilitator in 2018. With continuous support by the SwaVos, the gap has come down to 2 per cent and 2.6 per cent. In other words, the ODF momentum is on an upswing.

“The state can do only so much; if we don’t take responsibility of our own health, we will suffer at the end,” Sirisha signed off positively.