A history of UNICEF work on water, sanitation and hygiene in India

UNICEF has been working with Government of India and partners for last 70 years to ensure that every child in India has access to clean water, basic toilets and practices good hygiene behaviors.

Idhries Ahmad
Devraj (6) receives handwasing training. AWW Madhu baira and CHO Justin Parmar conduct handwashing session for kids during Mamta Diwas session (VHND) post covid lockdown. Location : Village Kundli, Raibar, Dahod, Gujarat
Vinay Panjwani
15 October 2020

Today we are celebrating Global Handwashing Day. A day when we all re-commit ourselves to make sure every child in India has access to water to wash his or her hands with soap to prevent diseases and save lives, which is even more important this year due to the COVID 19 pandemic.

UNICEF India has been working with Government of India and partners for last 70 years to ensure that every child in India has access to clean water, basic toilets and practices good hygiene behaviors.

Today, let’s rewind the wheels of history and take you on an interesting journey on the most important milestones that UNICEF has achieved in India in last seven decades.

Drought in India
Representational picture

1966 -Bihar Drought

In the summer of 1966, Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh experienced one of the worst droughts of the 20th century. Around 60 million people faced acute food and water shortages. /At the request of the country’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, UNICEF provided drilling rigs to accelerate the government’s efforts to provide safe drinking water.

The emergency programme mounted at that time, lead in due course, to a major expansion of the national rural drinking water supply programme in which UNICEF became the key external partner.

Mark II handpumps

1970-1980 The Water Revolution

During the 1970s, UNICEF became a key partner of the Government of India, supporting the world’s largest rural water supply programme. UNICEF brought drilling rigs to India which could drill boreholes in hard rock strata. The Government supplied handpumps for community use. However there was a problem..

The hand pumps, originally designed for single family use, were not up to the wear and tear of use by  communities of 500 or more people. India needed a strong, locally manufactured handpump which could be easily maintained.

Mark II handpumps

The  need for sturdy handpumps ultimately led to the development of the India Mark II, which became the world’s most famous handpump. UNICEF worked with the government’s Mechanical Engineering Research and Development Organisation and Richardson and Cruddas, a government-owned engineering company, to develop the India Mark II. 

The origin was  in Maharashtra where the Sholapur Pump was already in use and this pump was strong and well-engineered; and it became the basis for the design of India Mark II. The India Mark II is a human-powered pump designed to lift water from a depth of fifty metres

The India Mark II, and the later developed India Mark III which is easier to maintain at the village level,  are now exported to more than 40 countries around the world.

Guinea Worm Eradication Programme
Guinea worm

1983- Guinea Worm Eradication Programme

Guinea worm disease is thought to have existed in India for several thousand years. In 1947 India was estimated to have some 25 million cases. When in 1983-4, nearly 40000 cases occurred annually in more than 12000 villages scattered over seven states,  the government launched the national guinea worm eradication programme.

UNICEF supported India's national programme to rid the country of the  disease caused by guinea worms.  This project was instrumental in getting the surgical extraction of guinea worms accepted in India and thereafter globally. In 2000, the World Health Organization certified that India was guinea worm free.


Women handpump mechanism

1992- Women Handpump mechanics

Drilling handpumps and its maintenance in India, has been traditionally considered to be a male domain. Women never actively participated in the heavy duty work of  drilling and repairing handpumps.

A UNICEF supported project in 1992, aimed at building capacity development of women handpump mechanics and helped women do this skilled and heavy labour work was launched and was remarkably successful to break many glass ceilings.

Sachin handwashing

2008: Supporting Global Handwashing Day

The Global Handwashing Day (GHD) was initiated in 2008 and UNICEF India has over the years supported these events on 15th October through its national presence and its field offices. The main focus over the years were diverse activities in schools. 

Indian cricket legend and UNICEF Ambassador Sachin Tendulkar and his teammates joined an estimated 100 million school children around the country in promoting and padding up  for better health and hygiene as part of the first Global Handwashing Day in 2008.

This gave a significant impetus to the celebrations. This year, in response to the Covid pandemic, handwashing has become our primary protection mechanism, and is being promoted widely globally and across the country.

Prashanth Vishwanathan

2014: Promoting handwashing in schools

The Right to Education Act (RTE) enacted in 2009 made it mandatory for schools to ensure gender segregated toilets and drinking water in schools. Handwashing with soap was made a part of mid-day meal scheme in 2013 with provision for construction of handwashing stations near the mid day meal dining area. 

UNICEF was a part of advocacy efforts and supported WASH in School, Anganwadi and Health care facilities programming in selected high priority districts. The concept of group hand washing designs was developed with UNICEF support.

Ending open defecation in India
Dhiraj Singh

2019: Helping make India open defecation free

Just a few years ago, in 2015, nearly half of India’s population of around 568 million people and accounted for 90 per cent of the people in South Asia and half of the 1.2 billion people in the world that defecated in the open.

India launched a massive sanitation programme, Swachh Bharat (clean India) Mission, which between 2015 and 2019, provided 105 million Household toilets, providing access to about 525 million people. A tremendous achievement, only possible because of the Mission led by the Prime Minister and implemented through massive partnerships of all and a vibrant nationwide Jan Andolan. 

UNICEF has been a proud partner of the Swachh Bharat Mission. 

With inputs from Sujoy Majumdar, Shyamnarayan Dave and Pratibha Singh