Having provided access to toilets to a whopping 6.6 lakh households, the District of Cooch Behar in the north of West Bengal was declared open defecation free (ODF) on 25th April, 2017. The announcement was made by the Chief Minister who presented a certificate and silver trophy to the District Magistrate, Mr. P. Ulaganathan and the Sabhadhipati of the Zilla Parishad.
The coveted Nirmal Bangla Award was presented to Cooch Behar in recognition of its outstanding contribution to the sanitation programme and achieving the status of an ODF district.
Speaking at the event, the CM appreciated the efforts made by the district administration and the community volunteers as also the active support of the Zilla Parishad and all the field functionaries.
The district which is the chicken neck that connects the North East to the rest of India has the longest Bangladesh border of West Bengal where more than 50% of the people belong to the SC community. More than 50% of the population in the backward and remote area is below poverty line. Further, according to the baseline survey of 2012, Cooch Behar had 3.16 lakh households without access to toilets.
Commenting on the outstanding achievement, the District Magistrate said that they had built close to 4 lakh toilets to also include households that were left out of the survey in a short span of 18 months.
“This has been possible through an intensive community process, where an informed community took up the challenge to achieve an ODF status,” he added, also emphasizing the importance of sustaining the momentum generated to promote sustainable sanitation solutions.
According to him, given the socio-political environment in Bengal, it was believed that the CLTS approach would not work. Nonetheless, this achievement goes to show that ODF through CLTS is the real ODF. It is sustainable,” the DM reiterated. In fact the Panchayat Department is now planning to implement their sustainable sanitation model in other districts.
“Registering an increase of 58.61 per cent over the access figures as on 2nd October 2014, Cooch Behar could ensure access to toilets for more than 6.6 lakh of its rural households. This was done by unleashing the power of community action through successful implementation of the CLTS (Community led total sanitation) process,” said Mr. Dibyendu Sarkar, Commissioner, Panchayat and Rural Development Department, and Mission Director for the SBM (G).
Mr. Sarkar acknowledged that the initial trigger was provided by the Feedback Foundation, while Knowledge Links worked extensively in the district.
Earlier, district officials have carried out several innovative activities to change attitudes and bring about behaviour change. Among them, were Nirmal Prabhat (sanitation morning) when the district officials together with panchayat leaders and volunteers set a record for reaching more than 3 lakh households on a single day starting at 5 am.
And then there was Gandhigiri – where district officers along with panchayat officials, natural leaders, volunteers, youth, members of SHGs, NGOs, ASHA went to homes across the district; Nirmal Chai (morning gathering at tea stalls); and Jan Sabha (dialogue with the DM) that helped gather momentum.
The district had also established ODF War Rooms in which the district administration planned and built strategies for their war against open defecation. It operated from 4-5.30 pm each day in every block as well as the district headquarters and was manned by several staff who connected with field workers for regular updates and feedback. They also motivated natural leaders and volunteers.
More recently, concerned members of the local community, particularly women from Self Help Groups (SHGs) and youth took it upon themselves to dismantle close to one lakh 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 achievement was made possible because every MLA, MP and Minister, all the Zilla Parishad and Panchayat members were brought under the fold and all of them participated in this CLTS movement,” the DM said.