A MANTRA for a better India

Published: Oct 21, 2012, 09:54 IST | Preeti Khilnani |

On October 9, Gram Vikas, an Orissa-based NGO, won the Global +5 Grand Prize in Geneva for its innovative programme of building self-sustainable toilets for each family in over 1, 000 villages across Orissa, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh. Preeti Khilnani talks to Joe Madiath, executive director, Gram Vikas, and finds that the revolutionary project breaks caste and gender barriers

India is a country of many colours and shades. Stories abound on the country’s economic development and globalisation — which is one side of the coin. So, when one chances upon stories of serious and sustainable rural development, there is a sense of wholesome achievement, hope and unerring redemption.

The Orissa-based NGO, Gram Vikas, ensures that the funds and labour for setting up toilets and clean drinking water facilities come from the communities themselves. Pics Courtesy/Gram Vikas

On October 9, Orissa-based NGO Gram Vikas achieved one such feat. Its MANTRA (Movement and Action Network for Transformation of Rural Areas) project, which provides rural communities in more than a thousand villages in Orissa with toilets and running water, bagged the first Global+5 award inGeneva

The starting point
MANTRA was started in 1992, after Gram Vikas conducted a survey in 100 villages in Orissa to study the most compelling problems faced by the underprivileged. Poor health was the foremost matter that needed immediate attention. Joe Madiath, head of MANTRA, and executive director of Gram Vikas, says they found that 80 per cent of the diseases were water-borne, mainly due to faeces contamination.

“Sixty two per cent of the women, including adolescent girls, had gynaecological or reproductive problems because they used the same batch of water to drink and bathe in. So, our goal was to build good toilets and restore the community’s dignity,” says Madiath.

Joe Madiath, executive director, Gram Vikas

He clarifies a rather rampant assumption. “The bureaucracy, government and even the media think that poor people need poor solutions. The underprivileged communities, too, thought this was a utopian concept because they had self-esteem issues. But we wanted good toilets and dressing rooms that could be used by everyone,” he adds.

Discontent can be a good thing
Gram Vikas was founded in 1979 and worked, in its initial years, on a bio gas programme which helped 60,000 families in the ’80s run biogas plants. Madiath has been with them ever since their inception and it is as much his journey as that of the NGO “In my college days in the Rs 60s, we were at a time where we felt the fruits of our freedom as a country were not reaching the poor.

A piped water supply plant at Kandhapara village in Dhenkanal district, Orissa.

We were disenchanted with the system and wanted to make a difference by using our discontentment in a positive way.” Now, nearly half a century later, over 1,000 villages have benefited from Gram Vikas’s work and the project is moving to other states, such as Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and even Maharashtra.

Paying for your own progress
Gram Vikas strongly believes that the underprivileged can and will pay for their own development. The most unique aspect of MANTRA is that its funds and labour come from the communities themselves. First, Gram Vikas chalks out a plan for each family to raise, on an average, Rs 1,000 per family, which goes towards a village ‘corpus fund’ where the rich subsidise the underprivileged. But even the most underprivileged person has to contribute atleast Rs 50, because 100 per cent participation of the village is a requisite for the programme.

Women in 1,000 villages across Orissa, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh now have access to clean toilets and drinking water

This corpus fund, placed in a term deposit, earns interest, which can be used only to support new families that may come up in future as the village grows, ensuring 100 per cent coverage at all times. Meanwhile, Gram Vikas trains unskilled boys and girls in masonry, and they can further make bricks and collect rubble for the foundation where the toilets and bathing rooms are constructed. The communities bear about 60 per cent of the capital cost of sanitation and 25 per cent of the cost of establishing piped water supply. “Our only condition is that we need a 100 per cent co-operation from the village. Even if one family is not willing we do not start the project,” says Madiath. 

Caste, gender no bar
Gram Vikas’s goal is to help the communities gain experience without any sense of exclusion, be it of women, dalits, tribals or widows. Madiath believes that, since our social structure is so deeply rooted in exclusion, unifying the people in a self-sustaining cause would do everyone good. Exclusion, in fact, is also one of the biggest hurdles they face till date.

A survey proved that women in the villages spent upto six to seven hours a day carrying water from its source to their houses. This included young girls who did this at the cost of getting an education. Now they cannot believe that they have 24 hours of water supply from three taps in the vicinity. “The biggest hurdle, though, was the exclusion by caste and birth. The same source of water for dalits as well as higher castes was a concern to some, but our motto is ‘one for all and all for one’ and only when all agreed we would go ahead.”

MANTRA is only an entry point project in aiding the villages to become ‘village republics,’ a concept coined by Mahatma Gandhi where all villages are self-sufficient and dependent on their own resources. Now ranking 51 on the Global Journal’s list of top 100 NGOs in the World, slowly and steadily, Gram Vikas is living the message of MK Gandhi and bringing essential rights to every one who deserves them, without anyexception.  

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