Raipur: Arti Rawte, an 11-year-old tribal girl from Dhobni village of Maoist-hit Rajanandgaon district in Chhattisgarh, used to wake up at four every morning -- not to study but keep a sharp lookout for villagers going out to defecate in the open and stop them from doing so. Her village has been declared 'Open Defecation Free', thanks to efforts of such spunky kids.
"I along with some other children used to look out for people going for open defecation and upon spotting such people we used to blow a whistle and tell that person not to do so. Violators would be fined Rs.500," Arti, who is part of Team Swachh - an initiative of UNICEF and a non-governmental organisation Jan Kalyan Sansthan, told IANS.
Arti's village got toilets in each house two years back, but the problem of open defecation did not end.
It was very difficult to convince the villagers to change their habit of going to the field to relieve themselves.
Arti who hails from the Halba tribe says despite having toilets in their homes people used to opt for open defecation. A vigilance committees (nigrani samiti) was formed in each village of the district which comprised children and other community members including the village chief -- to prevent people from going to the field.
Arti loves English and wants to become a doctor and "serve the people of this under developed area and educate them about personal hygiene and healthy life."
"I understand the importance of cleanliness and personal hygiene. My elder sister who is married in a nearby village, Kurrubhat, does not have a toilet at her in-laws. I told her in-laws to construct a toilet and discourage open defecation. Now they have agreed to mine and my sister's wish and are getting a toilet constructed," Arti said.
According to Swachhta Status Report released by the National Sample Survey (NSS), more than half of the rural population in India still opts for open defecation. The survey estimates that 52.1 per cent of people in rural India choose open defecation as compared to 7.5 per cent in urban India.
The initiative of persuading villagers in Chhattisgarh to use toilets was started by UNICEF with the help of an NGO from Delhi in 2013 in Rajnandgaon. Later local NGOs were roped in the campaign to make it more effective.
The open defecation free campaign is now spreading to various Chhattisgarh districts, including Surguja, Dhamtari, Dantewada etc.
Yogendra Pratap Singh, the chief of Jan Kalyan Sansthan - which leads the open defecation free campaign in Rajnandgaon district - told the visiting IANS correspondent that in Rajnandgaon district over 300 villages have been declared ODF.
"Two blocks - Churiya and Chowki -- of the district have been declared ODF along with many other villages of Rajnandgaon. In the early years, on a pilot basis we made a few villages Open Defecation Free and asked the government for support. Now the state government is supporting the cause," Singh said, adding that the government reimburses the cost of toilet construction after seeing its successful utilization for three months.
Bharati, 18, from neighbouring Heeravahi village, led the campaign in her area by stressing on the need for toilets for women and girls of her village.
"Open defecation is not just unhygienic, but unsafe for girls. We created awareness in our community about the need for building toilets through special projects. Today, while we have community toilets, people are making efforts to build private toilets as well," she said.
Seventeen-year-old Laxmi, a Gond tribal, of Ranamatiya village of Rajnandgaon - the first village to be declared ODF in Chhattisgarh - says it was hard to convince the residents of her village to construct toilets and quit the habit of going to the open field.
Laxmi is also lead campaigner of the Team Swachh initiative and played a vital role in making her village the first ODF village in the entire state.
"We saw strong opposition from villagers. The experts told them about the hazards of open defecation and convinced them to build toilets and use it," Laxmi said.
A group of such young adolescent girls and boys from Rajnandagaon, who are part of Team Swachh, were felicitated by senior officials of the state government, Delhi Daredevils cricket team and UNICEF for their special effort in making their respective villages open defecation free.
Prasanta Dash, Chief of Field Office, UNICEF Chhattisgarh, said that everyday some villages are becoming ODF which gives UNICEF and the government of Chhattisgarh a sense of pride.
"These young children spread the message of not to defecate in the open and do the monitoring. Because of such effort and support from the state government we could make around 2,000 villages open defecation free," Dash told IANS.
UNICEF lends technical support to the state government in using Community Approaches to Total Sanitation (CATS) model to end open defecation with special focus on women and adolescent girls.