It is a sin if one's faeces exposed to others, spreading disease, creating discomfort and polluting the environment.
- S.Damodaran, Founder, Gramalaya
SAIT DAMODARAN IS THE FOUNDER AND DIRECTOR OF GRAMALAYA
- AN INDIAN NGO THAT HAS RECENTLY LED SUCCESSFUL CAMPAIGNS FOR TOTAL
SANITATION IN VILLAGES AND SLUMS IN TAMIL NADU. HERE, HE ARGUES THAT
NATIONAL GOVERNMENT'S ACCEPTANCE OF NEW APPROACHES WILL NOT WORK UNTIL
IT IS BACKED BY TRAINED AND COMMITED GOVERNMENT PERSONNEL AT LOCAL
OVER THE last fifteen or so years, NGOs have put in the patient and sometimes frustrating work of testing people-led water and sanitation programmes in slums and villages across India. Quite apart from the low-cost technologies that have been developed, this effort has yielded a strategy – or at least identified the basic principles of an approach – which could now be used to bring clean water, safe sanitation, and hygiene awareness to millions.
National and State level governments have not been slow to recognise the value of these new ideas. Directives are now being passed down which re?ect the insights generated by NGOs. All the right language is being used – ‘participatory, transparency, demand driven’ – and I do not question the sincerity of the people who are trying to get these concepts into the mainstream.
‘Ideally, we’re aiming for a situation where villagers or slum residents have the confidence to challenge politicians and engineers’
The problem is that the methods now gaining credibility at higher levels are not being understood by officials, bureaucrats and engineers further down the government line.
As a result, even the best new policies are weakened by the time they reach the ground. It is like passing a block of ice through many hands – by the time it reaches the poor, there is simply nothing left.
There is clearly a challenge for higher government officials here. Giving sanction to new approaches is not enough. For a start, you have to guarantee that your
own staff get the training they need to do the job properly. If lower officials don’t even know what the new policies are about, how can they be expected to put them into action? If they are bored, cynical, corrupt, unskilled and untrained, how can they be expected to seize on this with the commitment required? People right down the line must be convinced that a new opportunity has arisen in which they have a key part to play. And they must be shaken out of an attitude of minimal-compliance with
regulations. If it’s going to work, we need zeal and imagination to be applied, not a rigid following of orders. We need people working with their heart, their head and their hands to make sure that this has real impact on the ground.
From the other end, I would advocate a campaign led by communities, civil society and NGOs to make the people aware of the initiatives being promised by their government. If a community group has never even heard of the Total Sanitation Campaign, how can they ask their representatives why nothing is happening in their village? Clearly, there is a place for the local media to get involved in raising public awareness.
But the grassroots campaign has to do more than simply raise awareness. If local officials are to be held accountable, then the community must be in a position to question
their methods and their practices. Ideally, we’re aiming for a situation where a group of villagers or slum residents has the confidence to challenge local politicians and engineers. They must be able to ask the officials the right questions at the right time: why hasn’t the finance been deposited in the account of the community group? Why has the contract been awarded to a private company when the community group is ready? Why is there no sign of training for the local hardware manufacturer? Why are you building that check-dam over there?
‘If local governments fail to get behind the new approach, they will continue to see their own initiatives de-railed by the indifference of communities’
This kind of self-confidence depends upon communities having a sound grasp of the new policies, and having the technical capacity to act as a watchdog during their implementation. NGOs must take the lead in building that degree of capacity. Since there are simply not enough NGOs to reach every village and every slum, we must be thinking of ways in which the community can act as a multiplier. Gramalaya is working to train local level ‘SHE teams’(Sanitation and Hygiene Education) so that
they are able to take over the task of informing and educating other communities.
If local governments fail to get behind the new approach, they will continue to see their own initiatives de-railed by the indifference of communities. I recently saw a government engineer working in a village where the people, because they had not been consulted, totally ignored him. They actually let him build a dam that they knew wasn’t going to work properly. He was not a corrupt man – but he did not understand the value of local knowledge and the importance of local participation.
It comes down to an attitude of mind. And that’s why ‘mind-washing’ has to come first. Without it, ‘hand-washing’ will never happen.