Bornali Borah, a housewife in remote Holow Phukan village in Assam, no longer wakes up her mother-in-lawduring the wee hours of the morning when she wants to go out to defecate. Borah and other women of the village are now happy as each house has a toilet and it is being used. Borah’s village has been declared ‘open defecation-free’ (ODF) as other villages in Lakwa block of the state’s Sivasagar district.
“I am happy that we live like human beings now and do not go to the fields to defecate like the animals. Before the toilets were constructed, all of us had go out in the fields to relieve ourselves. The entire thing was disappointing but we did not have any solution,” Bornali, in her early 30s, told IANS.
The toilet constructed at Bornali’s home is among 5,319 toilets in Lakwa block, funded by the state government and the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) projects of companies like ONGC and BCPL (Brahmaputra Crackers and Polymers Ltd). The entire initiative was supported by UNICEF.
A baseline study done by the Public Health Engineering Department (PHED) in Lakwa in 2015 had revealed that toilet coverage was 35 percent and about 51 percent toilets were found to be unusable.
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Sixtyeight-year-old Bohagi, another woman beneficiary in Lakwa block, told IANS: “People used to say that they feel suffocated to defecate in a proper enclosed toilet, but I do not agree with them. After all, the government has constructed the toilets not just to ensure proper sanitation but also proper security for people who had to sometimes go in the field in the dark,” she said.
She said it took a lot of efforts of the state government and the volunteers to change the mindset of people.
A government official said they began by sensitising district- and block-level officials.
“The next phase involved sensitisation of community, key front line village workers and school children. The initiative was led by the district deputy commissioner and succeeded in making Lakwa ‘open defecation-free’ by December 2015,” he said.
Referring to earlier efforts to construct toilets, he said temporary toilets made of bamboo and straw without proper sanitary pits had their problems, as the structure was damaged during rains, and there was the risk of skin infections and other diseases.
The official said that people stuck to open defecation and there was some resistance to initial efforts at toilet construction.
“But now using toilet is a habit here. There has been no recurrence of open defecation,” the official said.
Lakwa block is mostly inhabited by the tea tribe community, who were brought as indentured labourers to work in the tea gardens of Assam. They comprise 17 percent of the state’s population and fare poorly on human development indices, including education.
“The entire initiative required emotional motivation. As most of the problems here do not get highlighted, they prevailed here for a long time. There were toilets which were defunct,” Virendra Mittal, District Collector of Sivasagar, told IANS.
Understanding the importance of the government’s initiative, the villagers of Lakwa block have also started convincing people in other blocks of the district about the benefits of toilets at home.
(Rupesh Dutta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. He was recently on a trip by the UNICEF to cover the Open Defecation Free (ODF) Lakhwa block of Sivasagar district in Assam, a first in the North East)