By Shibaji Bose
It is during the wee hours of the morning that Ms. Selvi determinedly steps out of her home in Pesumpon Nagar village in Southern Tamil Nadu, against the wishes of her husband, armed with a whistle in her hand. Her mission is to go around the 1500 population strong village to warn those who continue defecating in the open.
Fully aware that practice of open defecation has severely harmed the health of her community, she tries to whistle people away. When that does not work, she narrates the fly story.
“To be frank, I was not making much progress in the beginning even though I held meetings, made repeated household visits or whistled. This was evident from the number of ‘repeat offenders’ who, even after being told, would come to particular zones to defecate,” conceded Ms Selvi, the gritty motivator of the Pesumpon Nagar village in Sakkimangalam block of Madurai district in Tamil Nadu.
It was during the Training of Trainers (TOT) meeting, organised by the panchayat with active support from the district administration and UNICEF that Ms. Selvi first heard the fly story. “It caught my imagination and I realised that the story can be effective to influence behaviour change,” she said.
Telling the Fly story is actually a win-win communication technique to inform individuals as well as a community that continues to defecate in the open, about the hazards of even having one single open defecator in the village. People needed to know that there is every chance that a fly or many flies can carry harmful germs from the faeces and infect residents of any or every household in the neighbourhood.
Commenting on the technique, Mr Murugan, Block Development Officer said, “The essence of this wonderful communication trigger introduced by UNICEF is that it conveys a scientific idea that can be easily understood by the villagers.” That results came fast in the form of several applications for constructing toilets from all quarters of the village is indication enough of the effectiveness of the trigger.
Commending the tremendous efforts of Ms Selvi, ex-gram panchayat president, Mr Veeranan Palpandi said, “Having realised the ill effects of open defecation which they could be subjected to, people from the community itself began pressuring those who continued to go out to relieve themselves, persuading them to change their habits and use their toilets.”
The village is now ODF thanks to the change of perception from within among members of the community. In all this, the panchayat, block, district and DRDA officials supported the village by providing incentive, as well as regular and timely monitoring. The impact was palpable in a little over a year: all the households had toilets, and open defecation became a thing of the past.
According to the staff nurse of the local primary health centre, Ms Sessiliye, “There has been a significant reduction in cases of stomach aches, snake bites, and diarrhoea. We now have more of time to treat critically ill patients.”
There is another aspect that both the panchayat and block administration are proud of: the largest open defecation space in the village, which was once a haven for antisocial elements has now been completely transformed into an open green space with budding plantations.
“We will develop this green space for our future generations,” said Mr Murugan, adding that it would be the pride of the entire community.
For Ms K Selvi, a mother of three children, who has to cover about 5 GPs that are home to a population of about 30,000, residing in 3619 households in month, there has been a significant change in the attitude of her children and particularly her husband towards her. The husband, who earlier would scold her for taking up this responsibility, now drives Ms Selvi to her workplace.
It seems that a fly too can be the trigger for wonderful community outcomes.