On 21st February, 2017, concerned members of the village community, particularly women from Self Help Groups (SHGs) and youth took it upon themselves to dismantle close to 60,000 kutcha (unsafe) toilets in Cooch Behar district of West Bengal. By doing so, they wanted all people to switch over to their pucca (sanitary) toilets.
“The kutcha toilets were so close to our homes; not only did they smell, they also attracted flies,” said SHG member, Anjuma Begum (35). “As long as kutcha toilets were still there, people continued to use them even if they had proper pucca toilets,” she added.
Ever since the Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin) campaign was initiated in the district about 2 years ago, people had learnt about faecal oral transmission and the health risks it posed during various triggering exercises. Further, they were aware that during the rainy season, water from kutcha toilets overflowed and contaminated water bodies in the vicinity.
Two years down the line, committees comprising SHG women and youth were formed in every block. With human chains and rallies, they gave people due notification of their intentions. In addition, they held community meetings and announced on a public address system, their plans to do away with insanitary toilets.
“We wanted all people to enjoy good health and our village to be clean,” Anjuma said.
Not surprisingly, with women taking leadership of the dismantling process, no one dared oppose them, according to Deputy Secretary, Tomojeet Chakraborty. SHGs, he said were most dynamic; often the drivers of change at grass root level.
Kutcha toilets had been a cause for worry in Cooch Behar. Not only did they contaminate drinking water source in the area, people seemed to be oblivious to the fact that by using unsafe latrines they were exposing themselves and their children to far greater health hazards. People had to make a social choice of transferring from the centuries old practice of defecating in the open to safe sanitation practices.
According to District Magistrate, P. Ulaganathan, the district administration had noticed that even though all homes had pucca toilets built, many people continued to use their old insanitary toilets within their premises owing to force of habit, preferring to make use of their pucca toilets to store firewood, etc.
Significantly, the day experienced wonderful social dynamism and people cutting across all sections of the society joined in the dismantling of unsafe facilities in a festive mood. Those kutcha toilets to them were the last bastions of unhealthy practices and the community tore them off.
Across the 12 blocks, about 20,000 SHG women with support from PRI (Panchayati Raj Institutions) bodies participated in the process, a community driven approach, facilitated by the district administration.
With ODF verification currently taking place, Cooch Behar is heading towards ODF status by end March 2017.