At first sight, you will assume that Mrs. Asiyabhanu is just another burqa clad woman walking down the streets of Mukkanamalaipatti village in Pudukkottai district of Tamil Nadu. Only when you start interacting with her, will you understand the important role she has played as a Swachhagrahi in a bid to make her village Open Defecation Free (ODF).
Like the Satyagrahis, who practiced non-violence to attain total independence for our country, Swachhagrahis, are trained women – one appointed in every village, striving for total sanitation in their villages. Also called motivators, they toil day and night to make their villages ODF.
Be it in a skill development programme or a scheme that provides drinking water to villages, or the Swachh Bharath Mission-Gramin wherein the government is facilitating the construction of Individual Household Latrines, Mrs. Asiyabhanu leads the villagers and acts as a liaison between villagers and the government staff.
It was the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation in association with DRDA Pudukkottai that first selected her as the Swachhagrahi of Mukkanamalaipatti panchayat and trained her in community approaches to sanitation. Considering that in the early days, she was not even allowed to go outside her house by her family, the courageous woman has come a long way. Unfazed and determined, she went ahead with what she thought was right and set off to make her village ODF.
It began when she commenced a survey of the villages by going door to door to identify how many of them had functional toilets. Thereafter, she visited those households which did not have toilets and spoke about the importance of having a toilet at home citing women’s security and health as the reasons. Along with her friends, she even went to open defecation spots early in the morning to persuade people not to defecate in open. At times she also had to hear insults and abuses by naysayers.
Villagers often complained that toilets would incur huge operational and maintenance cost owing to frequent filling up of the septic tank. That’s when she told them about twin pit toilets and their benefits where in if one pit fills, the alternate pit is put to use. Meanwhile in the first pit, the water leaches out and the excreta decomposes to become fertile manure which can be emptied with hand at no external cost, she explained, adding that it could be used for agricultural purposes.
Through continuous interaction and follow-up she has motivated around 250 families to construct toilets and helped them get their incentive of Rs.12000/- per toilet through the panchayat.
Safe sanitation cannot be ensured by just constructing a toilet. Being aware of this, she regularly visited homes to check if the toilets were being properly used. This she continued until everyone in the family was convinced about the need to use the toilet at all times. Other advice she provides pertains to segregating waste into wet and dry waste and handing it over to Thooimai Kaavalars who come to their doorsteps each morning to collect the same.
In addition, the swachhagrahi visits schools and anganwadis regularly, teaching children the important steps to washing hands with soap; while touching upon the need to wear washed clothes, brush their teeth twice a day, wear footwear, cut their nails and bathe daily. She believes that if everyone follows such simple steps regularly, around 80% of the diseases can be averted. Apart from this, she also teaches girl children about menstrual hygiene.
For her untiring efforts, Mrs. Asiyabhanu and six other women have been selected for JRD Tata National Virtual Academy Fellowship which recognizes rural change-makers across the country. She was also a part of the Swachh Shakti congregation in Gandhinagar in March 2017 organized by the Government of India to honour women who have contributed immensely for a clean India.
By Ashwin Kumar, ZSBP-Pudukkottai, Tamil Nadu