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Staging safe sanitation messages

Dec 11, 2008

Assamese government officials in northeast India are staging plays on good sanitation and healthy practices as part of the state's campaign to raise awareness. The humour of the script and local participation help to strike the right chord with the audience to induce behavioural change.

A typical village school scene. The class-monitor checks the nails and teeth of his classmates. Just then the teacher walks in and takes stock of things. The teacher reprimands Jadu, a student, for failing to meet the cleanliness standards, and is sent home. A little later, Jadu’s mother storms in and questions the teacher. She says, “My son has not been keeping well for several days. I have had to consult several witch-doctors.”

A social worker who was passing by hears the commotion and stops at the school. And naturally inquisitive, school children ask the social workers various questions on sanitation and he answers them.

The social worker asks Jadu’s mother whether she has a toilet at home. Jadu’s mother replies, “We don’t need a toilet. It’s the government’s job to build it for us. If they can provide Rs 1200 subsidy for the toilet costing Rs 1500, why can’t they spare the extra Rs 300? We would rather relieve ourselves in the bamboo grove in the backyard.”

The social worker then explains that the Rs 300 is to be paid by the beneficiary so that she feels a sense of responsibility towards the maintenance of the toilet. He cites the example of public toilets near the bus stand where nobody needs to keep it clean. “No wonder, in such unhygienic conditions, your son keeps falling sick,” he tells Jadu’s mother.

Using local talent

Interestingly, the social worker in the play titled Natak Nohoi (This is not a play) is Robin Chandra Das, an assistant executive engineer with the Public Health Engineering Department (PHED), Assam. Das has put together this innovative play, which has no written script and keeps changing from the place in which it is staged.

The play uses anecdotes like how even a cat covers its faeces but, we, human beings defecate in the open and spread infections

“We have few other staff members who assist me in staging the play. And in any locality, we often go hunting for local talent a few hours before the play is actually staged. We urge the women and children to participate in the play and once it is over, we hold an interactive session on sanitation. The humour in the play manages to strike the right emotional chord,” says Das.

The play is part of the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) which is a comprehensive programme to ensure sanitation facilities in rural areas with the broader goal to eradicate the practice of open defecation. TSC, as a part of reform principles, was initiated in 1999 when Central Rural Sanitation Programme was restructured making it demand-driven and people-centred.

And the response has been tremendous. H.A. Ahmed, Executive Engineer, PHED, Biswanath Chariali division of Sonitpur district in Assam is enthused at the participation of his officials. Ahmed says, “Sometimes we also involve the local cultural troupes of the area. And people throng to see the plays which manage to carry the message of sanitation to the masses in a more effective manner.”

The play uses anecdotes like how even a cat covers its faeces but, we, human beings defecate in the open and spread infections.

The play also incorporates local dialects and even a few Assamese songs with the sanitation theme keeping the audience hooked. Another scene has a mother walking in with a boy who plays truant.

The mother complains, “Earlier he used to skip school complaining of stomach ache. But now that I have built a toilet at home with my savings, he cannot play around with the same excuse. Today, I heard something move. I thought that our neighbours had come out to defecate in the open but, instead, I saw my son perched on a tree near the bamboo grove.” She then explains to Jadu’s mother on the benefits of having a toilet at home and how it helps keep flies away.

Breaking taboos

In Assam, the PHED is responsible for ensuring safe hygiene through Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) as well as providing safe drinking water to all the schools located in rural areas.

The play was conceptualised by the PHED officials as part of the Sanitation Week being organised in the state this year. The year 2008 has been declared the International Year of Sanitation which aims to address these challenges by raising awareness of the benefits of good hygiene and by helping to break the taboos about speaking out for changes in behaviour.

The School Sanitation and Hygiene Education, widely known as SSHE, is a comprehensive programme to ensure child-friendly water supply, toilet and hand washing facilities in the schools and promote behavioural change by hygiene education. The importance of SSHE was emphasised at the Third South Asia Conference on Sanitation (SACOSAN) held in Delhi from November 16-21.

At present, the SSHE is implemented under the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) and given special thrust by following the proven route of teacher-children-family-community where child is a change-agent playing an effective role on sustained basis to spread the message of improved sanitary and healthy practices.

The main goal of the government is to eradicate the practice of open defecation by 2010. To give fillip to this endeavour, it has launched Nirmal Gram Puraskar to recognise the efforts in terms of cash awards for fully covered PRI (Panchayat Raj Instituitions), and those individuals and institutions who have contributed significantly in ensuring total sanitary practices in their area of operation.

In the past two years, Assam has bagged eighteen Nirmal Gram Puraskars. Nareswar Kakati, Secretary, PHED, Assam told TEHELKA, “Our main target is to initiate behavioural change in the people using innovative means, paying special attention to whether they belong to the hilly terrain or the plains”.

The play is a small step in this direction but the sanitation campaign in Assam still has a long way to go.

Source : Tehelka
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