‘In times of cynicism, hope can be the only medicine’

Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh
Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

The Chhau dancer, with his huge, richly coloured head mask, rushed into the open space. His energetic moves, as he jumped to the loud music, drew the attention of the villagers gathered. Children sat enthralled, women hushed their babies and the men bobbed their heads to the beat of the drums.

After months, I had found myself on the ‘field’ in Ranchi, as they say in the development lingo. The skies were open, the forests were lush and the greenery was a sore sight for my city weary eyes. We had travelled through narrow kuccha roads to reach Katia, a small village in Saraikela district with a population of about 700 people. I was struck by the cleanliness of the lanes and houses; no garbage could be sighted. Yet, this was a village that had no toilets.

In India, where temples and cellphones outnumber our toilets, this comes as no surprise. In Jharkhand, only 44 percent of household sanitary toilets have been constructed under the national sanitation programme, according to the most recent data on the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan website. Open defecation remains a challenge in developing countries such as ours, where toilets are missing. As per the latest Census, 69.3 percent of rural India defecates in the open.

As part of a sanitation programme, my work involves motivating villagers to stop defecating in the open. My colleague Vinay was to conduct a ‘triggering’ exercise that would introduce people to the harmful health impacts of open defecation. This is one activity that has successfully triggered change in people’s habits and attitudes towards their sanitation and hygiene practices. I had read about it and was now curious to see the action on the ground.

As the dancer wrapped up his act, Vinay started his own. In a loud booming voice, he started chatting up the villagers. At the start, he asked them to help draw a map of the village on the ground, marking the lanes, ponds and temple. White lime powder was used to mark the lanes, coloured gulal and papers were used to locate the resources. Some of the men got up to participate. A few women joined in, bending close to the ground with red colours in hands. The result was a strangely beautiful graphic, almost close to an artwork.

As people warmed up to the exercise, my colleague deftly introduced the subject of shit, handing over the yellow colour to the men to indicate places of open defecation in the village. A few jokes lightened the mood, and swept away any sense of unease and embarrassment. The linkages to poor health and diarrhoea were then lucidly explained. “Does the fly sitting on your shit visit only your house?” Vinay asked. I was amazed to see how quickly people reacted and responded to his questions. The women laughed, nodded and spoke out. The men shouted, lightly sparred and then agreed. At the end of two hours in the humid heat, the villagers were largely convinced of faecal contamination and the ill effects of open defecation. Some even expressed the desire to build toilets and asked us about available low-cost options.

As I turned away from the crowd, I noticed a mother washing off the naked bottom of the child in her arms as she neatly covered the faeces on the ground with some earth, her feet patting the place dry.

It’s going to be a long journey, I note. Sustaining behaviour change and practices is the bigger challenge in sanitation.

As we wound up to leave Katia, I was, to my surprise, infused with hope. In times of cynicism, hope is the only medicine for non-believers and believers alike. For once, I knew in my heart that people do seek change for the better. And they also make a difference. The triggering is a start.


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