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Sharam yatra raises a stink on open defecation

Sujata Raghavan, Patna

In 1999 Gita Devi constructed a toilet with funds from the central government’s Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) in her marital home in Maner block of Patna district. Yet her entire family, including Gita, continued to defecate in the open. The toilet would be opened like a showpiece during special occasions such as marriages, festivals or for guests.

Family members frequently fell ill, especially in summer and during the monsoon. But it didn’t strike anybody that recurring illness was due to defecating in the open. 

Years later, in 2011, a programme called Gram Varta (village dialogue) was started in Maner block by the state government under its ‘Sector Wide Approach to Strengthening Health (SWASTH)’ programme with support from the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID).

A series of 20 meetings was conducted with village women grouped into Self-Help Groups (SHGs). The SHG movement in Bihar has expanded considerably, helped along by the Women’s Development Corporation (WDC), the Bihar Rural Livelihoods Project (BRLP) and the Mahila Samakhya.

The meetings, called Participatory Action and Learning (PLA) in NGO jargon, used role play and storytelling to get the women to discuss and decide local social and economic issues in a friendly and frank manner. The idea was to help individuals, families and communities take better care of women, mothers and newborns. 

The focus was on changing attitudes and increasing demand for better services in health, nutrition, water, sanitation and hygiene. The messages sent out, including by anganwadi workers and ASHAs working for the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) were simple, acceptable and consistent.

Gita, who took part in the Gram Varta on sanitation, was in for a shock. In one of the meetings, the women were asked to map open defecation sites in their village. The women gathered in an open area and brought ...

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