Having been declared open defecation free (ODF) in September 2015, Himachal Pradesh’s Mandi District is now moving towards ODF plus which involves effective management of solid and liquid waste; and adoption of zero waste principles that reduce waste and increase access to recycling and composting.
In this regard, the district administration has enlisted the support of women’s groups or Mahila Mandals and self-help groups, according to District Collector, Sandeep Kadam.
Around 4,490 women’s groups numbering about 60,000 to 70,000 women have been involved in a campaign called Mandi Vikas Abhiyan, its thrust areas being Swachhta Abhiyaan (sanitation), Beti Bachao (celebrating the girl child) and disaster management, considering the district is prone to floods, landslides, heavy snow fall and road accidents. The activity based model goes beyond lectures andidentification of do’s and don’ts.
“The basic concept is to devote two hours per week on cleanliness activities,” explains the DC. As per the campaign, all Mahila Mandals are required to undertake one activity per week related to sanitation. The work involves cleaning of public places – roads, schools, toilets in schools and anganwadis, water tanks and traditional water bodies, drains, and creating soak pits for disposal of liquid waste, garbage pits, vermi-compost pits, etc.
Indicating how the district has moved on from construction of toilets to ensuring hygiene, “Women now undertake such activities on a regular basis,” Kadam said.
Mandi has also developed a concept called Swachh Gram. For a gram panchayat to be called a Swachh Gram, it has to comply with eight well laid out criteria to include segregation of waste; disposal of biodegradable waste; disposal of non-biodegradable waste with the help of kabadis; encouraging people to have dustbins in cars; cleanliness of all toilets; among others.
Recently, Khaddar panchayat was declared Swachha Gram as it had satisfied all the stipulated criteria. In recognition, an incentive amounting to Rs 5 lakh was provided to the gram panchayat from the development funds; in order to motivate other panchayats to do likewise.
Ever since the commencement of the Mandi Vikas Abhiyaan, nearly two lakh cleaning activities have been undertaken, and 30,000 soak pits and 15,000 garbage pits were constructed. For all these activities the district has not paid a single penny towards their costs. “It was a phenomenal show of volunteerism,” Kadam said, recalling how hard people worked to dig pits, carry stones and cement wherever necessary. Notably, many of them had even painted and decorated their work, which served as a great source of inspiration.
The objective of all our initiatives was not to have clean roads and schools free of cost; it was to facilitate behaviour change, he added.
While interacting with families there, the DC found that neither the 60-70,000 women belonging to the Mahila Mandals or their families resorted to littering any more. They knew that if they littered, it was a member of their own family who would have to clean up. Consequently, they think twice or thrice before thrown garbage and that is evidence of actual behaviour change – a great achievement of the campaign.
Nevertheless, the real outcome of the campaign is empowerment. Kadam said that the campaign has given women an opportunity for social congregation and social interaction outside their households. He said they initially they faced huge resistance from their families and the society, having listened to several inspiring stories of how they overcame the resistance.
Considering that in our societycleaning of public places is not an honorable job, the women often were at the receiving end of some sarcastic comments and caste-ist remarks. Despite that, the women persisted and now have become SBM champions. As many as five of the Swachhta champions, were honoured by Union Minister (MDWS), Narendra Singh Tomar recently.
Further, in some places the campaign had turned into a fight against some social malaises. Take the case of the Bungrail Chowk panchayat where women started a fight against their ostracisation during their menstrual cycle when they literally became untouchables, having to stay in cowsheds during the 3-4 day period. “Women stated boldly that the practice was against personal hygiene,” the DC said.
In yet another instance, the Swachhta campaign became a war against liquor menace. During their routine cleaning of public places, women found that the biggest component of garbage collected was liquor bottles. This led to women starting the Daru-Bandiabhiyan (liquor ban) in the Sawamahu Gram Panchayat.
During the entire exercise, hundreds of women were part of a knowledge network to share updates and best practices. They learnt how to use internet and whatsapp on their mobiles o communicate with the district administration. “This particular campaign was transformed from Abhiyan to Andolan. Swachhta has become a social movement because of the participation of women,” he added.
Another indication of women’s empowerment was seen during the recent elections of Panchayati Raj Institutions when 146 women were elected at various levels from ward Panch to Zilla Parishad.