GUWAHATI: A good story has a hero and a villain. An inspiring story is the one in which the hero acknowledges a team’s efforts in slaying the multi-headed dragon of problems instead of taking sole credit. The continuing success of the WASH (Water, sanitation, hygiene) initiative in Assam—a collaborative effort of the central and state government, with support from UNICEF—is the second kind of story in which ‘teamwork’ has a major role to play. Even then, there is no belittling the heroes who are trailblazers and leading the community to a better future.

The DC with out-of-the-box ideas

Apart from the ubiquitous title, ‘DC Sir’, that everyone calls him by, Virender Mittal, the district commissioner of Sibsagar, is also known as the ‘Swachhata Doot’ (messenger of cleanliness).

But that’s a title he confers to all his team members working on making the district open defecation free (ODF), block by block. The first block to be declared ODF in India’s northeast (barring Sikkim), Lakwa, is from this district, and Mittal is confident that entire Sibsagar will be ODF by 2017.

“I have a four-M principle to get things done. Motivation, Mission, Money, Monitoring. First, all stakeholders, including the public, the Panchayat, the self-help groups, have to be motivated; we have to be self-sufficient in the mission part, so we have trained people to be masons within the community so that we don’t have to depend on people from outside; money is important, so I have ensured there is direct money transfer to NGOs and streamlining of funds; and finally, monitoring. In Lakwa for example, I held meetings every Saturday in the four GPs (Gaon Panchayat) to discuss the progress of the work until we achieved the mission,” Mittal said.

The DC’s power over words is awe-inspiring as he recalls historical characters from Assam like the Ahom kings and Joymoti—in fluent Assamese—to motivate people to take up the reigns for change. Such is his oratory skill that, in his own words, a surrendered militant sold his motorcycle in order to maintain his toilet, and an alcoholic decided to bring down his weekly quota to do the same!

Mittal is also very tech-savvy, and has all his team members in a whatsapp group so that they can constantly keep updating each other on problems and progress. In the Demow block, which is the next target for ODF, 60 women have been trained as masons under his guidance. The women are breaking barriers, and building a brand new future with toilet construction.

Leading his village to become a ODF pioneer

Mukul Moloy, the Gaon Panchayat (GP) president of Sibsagar’s Lakwa block, admits that he has no time for his family. “My daughter is in class nine, but I don’t have the time to even pick her up from school. But that’s ok, my work is important,” the mild-mannered GP leader says.

Hollophukon, Moloy’s village—Lakwa has four GPs—was first to be ODF in Assam. By October last year, the entire block was declared ODF. It was, by no means, a mean feat. “Of the more than 2,000 households, we had about 950 households which had a single-pit toilet before this mission started in December, 2014. But even with those who had a toilet, usage was not 100 percent,” Moloy said.

Villagers were not aware of proper usage, and would sometimes dump garbage in the toilet, and when it would get blocked, they would end up breaking the water seal in the process of removing the block. They would also be wary of using ample water to flush the toilet since water was scarce.

Over a period of 10 months, however, the zealous GP president led an enthusiastic team of workers to change people’s mindsets as sanitary toilets with double pit began to be built in homes. Moloy remembers how the villagers were particularly stung when the DC, on one of his visits, had explained how flies carry germs from faeces to all things it sits on, including food.

“DC Sir said that it’s ok for animals to live around muck, but was it ok for us? That stung many people...we are not animals, everyone said. We must clean up our act,” he recalled.

As people began using toilets and children learnt the proper way to wash hands, another opportunity emerged as a result of this initiative—employment. Moloy says that about 80 young men from his block have been newly trained as masons to meet the requirement of skilled workers in building toilets.

Now that the work in Lakwa is done, the men have been sought after in other blocks where similar work is underway. Now that sanitation and hygiene is under control, the forward-looking GP president is now focusing on the next challenge—water. “Water is scarce here. And the water available is high in iron. I am working on improving that now,” Moloy said.

She brought a wave of relief to her village

As Moloy begins another war, 58-year-old Debajani Gogoi has already won the battle of getting clean water supply to her village in the Jorhat district.

While she does not come across as someone extraordinary in the first meeting, the story of her fight for water is inspiring, to say the least.

Gogoi’s village, Moran gaon, was notorious for its water scarcity. Every year, as summers approach, the problem worsens. “We didn’t have tube-wells because of the high iron content in the water. Going about our day-to-day life was becoming difficult without water, and people’s health was also affected. In 2012, the problem became extremely bad. It was then I decided to take matters in my hands. There was a non-functioning office of the water supply department in our village; I gathered a few other women and decided to go to the officials of the department to see what can be done to get that functioning,” she said.

Fifteen women, led by Gogoi, formed a group and approached the water supply department, which in turn guided them to form a Water Users Committee, a self-sustainable group for water management. Gogoi was made the president of the 15-member committee.

“As president, I told the villagers that each household had to initially pay an amount of Rs. 1,200 for the pipeline, and thereafter pay a monthly amount of Rs.100 for the water supply. We opened a bank account so that there were no discrepancies in money management,” she said.

As the taps started flowing, a wave of relief washed over the village. People also started using water filters in their homes to drink clean, potable water. As she heads the committee and also plays an active role in the Mahila Samiti (Women’s self-help group), Gogoi however adds that problems do crop up every now and then. “It’s mostly to do with regular payment of bills. Although we have all the 200 households sign up for the connection, sometimes some people miss the payment. There are families who have paid only till 2013, and there are others who are up to date with the last bill. In such cases, I borrow money from my husband, or we, the committee members, pool in and pay the bill which usually comes around Rs.5,000,” Gogoi said.

She, however, does not sound bitter. “We manage. We understand each other’s problems, and we share each other’s joys. Right now I am busy preparing for a neighbour’s daughter’s’s a community affair. The entire village participates!” she says with positivity.

Actions speak louder than words, believes this DC

M.S. Mannivannan, the DC of Dibrugarh, believes in taking stock of difficult situations first-hand in order to arrive at long lasting solutions. So when he decided to assess the progress of work in building toilets and changing public perception about toilet usage in Singlijan tea estate in the Lahoal block, he decided to do so by staying the night over at a worker’s house. It created a flutter, and Mannivannan saw the ground reality for himself.

“It helped me take stock of the progress, of understanding the community’s thoughts, of experiencing their problems for myself,” he says. Dibrugarh district has 176 tea gardens—the most tea intensive district of the state—and Lahoal block has 26. It also has 13 GPs.

“Six of the 26 gardens are ODF, Singlijan being a model garden. The rest of the gardens will also be declared ODF very soon,” Mannivannan said.

Singlijan became the first tea garden in the country to be declared ODF. The whole district, he added, will become ODF by 2017. “There were some discrepancies in the 2012 baseline survey, some households were left out. We are working at correcting the findings of that survey so those left-out households are included, and all houses get sanitary latrines,” he said.

The DC also acknowledges the important role youngsters have in bringing about change. So much so that he has convinced the Vice Chancellor of Dibrugarh University to introduce a mandatory subject on sanitation to students pursuing graduation in 27 of its colleges.

“The Dibrugarh University signed an MoU with the district administration in this regard. There will also be a health and sanitation club in every college, as part of which they will conduct surveys on the subject,” he said.

Not one to keep all the praise for himself, Mannivannan constantly shies away from accolades being conferred upon him. “It’s a team effort. My duty is to help the people, especially the marginalised like the tea community. I have not done anything exceptional,” he says.