Belsand/Parsouni (Bihar) Nov 19 (IANS) Till October, Sitwa Devi, Munia Devi and their daughters were defecating in open fields near their villages, like millions in Bihar. Not any more. They were sensitised, motivated and persuaded to live with honour, dignity, self-respect and lead a healthy life by their co-villagers.
There is visible change, all thanks to direct participation of the community for an open defecation-free (ODF) living.
Sitwa Devi, a resident of Madanpur village under Parsouni block, and Munia Devi, a resident of Rajlohasi village under Belsand block, -- both in Sitamarhi district -- are the faces of this visible transformation.
They are two of the thousands of women and men, who are now living in an ODF environment in hundreds of villages across Bihar.
"Going to a nearby field to defecate in groups in the darkness was a regular feature for us till early last month (October). Now I'm the proud owner of a toilet in my house," Munia, in her mid-40s, told IANS.
Sitwa, in her early 50s, too narrated her story of change, adding that she never imagined that a toilet would ever be constructed in her house and she would be spared from attending to nature's call in the open.
Sitamarhi District Magistrate Rajeev Roshan said all this was made possible due to direct involvement of the village community. "What matters more than anything, is the mass mobilisation by their own community. It took some time to mobilise, motivate and convince them through alternative techniques for this behavioural change," Roshan said.
He said that one sub-division, Belsand, and two blocks -- Nanpur and Parsauni -- are on the verge of becoming ODF. Dozens of gram panchayats have turned ODF so far in the district.
Roshan praised women for playing a crucial role in making villages ODF. "People, particularly women, are no more found standing near roads or in fields to relieve themselves. Such things have disappeared in ODF villages," said Roshan, adding that the few who were found standing around were those monitoring the situation.
Rural Development Department Principal Secretary Arvind Kumar Choudhary said community participation was the key to behaviour change, with village after village adopting safe sanitation practices in Bihar. "We have been working towards community participation in hundreds of villages in several districts to make them ODF through collective behavioural change," Choudhary said.
He said the government's focus was not merely on construction of toilets. "We have been educating and propagating in the primary stage to ensure an ODF village. When villagers themselves agreed to say 'NO' to open defecation, the government agencies helped them to construct toilets," he said.
According to Choudhary, the community was supported and assisted by the local leadership and administration officials. There was, he said, still a long way to go to achieve something remarkable in Bihar, as nearly 1.6 crore toilets still remain to be constructed.
"We are now stressing on the need for ODF villages. It will pave the way for ODF blocks, then ODF sub-divisions, followed by ODF districts," he said.
Behavioural change is the key difference this time. "Without such change, people stick to their old habits. In the past, over 16 lakh toilets were constructed by the state government under different total sanitation programmes, which are lying dysfunctional," Choudhary pointed out.
Before the construction of toilets, the entire village population is sensitised, mobilised and motivated through what is called the "Community-Led Total Sanitation" approach. It was successfully experimented in Rampur panchayat in Khagaria district that became the first ODF panchayat in 2015. After Rampur, Piprasi in Champaran became the first ODF block, followed by Sanjhauli in Rohtas.
"Sanjhauli was made open defecation-free in only 55 days. Over 6,000 families in 64 villages in six gram panchayats got toilets constructed in their houses," Rohtas District Magistrate Animesh Parashar said.
The district-wide campaign was launched as 'Mission Pratistha' in June to make the district ODF in a time-bound manner, Parasher said, adding: "These toilets were a matter of 'pride' for these households."
Upbeat over the success in Sanjhauli, the Rohtas district administration has been working to turn Surajpura, Nokha and Tilauthu into ODF blocks.
Choudhary said work was going on in full swing in several districts, including Sitamarhi, Rohtas, Buxar, East and West Champaran and Khagaria. Sitamarhi is likely to become the first ODF district in Bihar by March 2017, followed by others, particularly West Champaran and Rohtas, he said.
"In fact, there are several districts in the race to become open defecation-free in Bihar, it is a positive development," he said, adding: "Monitoring was being done by local residents along with women of JEEViKA - Bihar Rural Livelihoods Project."
In hundreds of villages, communities themselves announced penalties for those who were found defecating in the open, despite agreeing not to do so.
Bihar Rural Development Minister Sharwan Kumar said the government has decided to achieve an ODF Bihar by October 2, 2019, under Swaach Bharat Mission-Gramin (SBM-G).
But to achieve this, there is need for about 200 gram panchayats becoming ODF each month. That remains a big challenge for now.
(Imran Khan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)