September 2018

Back to basics

Putting data to work, Har Gobinda Boro and his team have successfully unearthed and addressed the issues around toilet coverage in Assam’s Goalpara district

Hara creating cleanliness awareness at a community meeting in a village under the Dudhnoi Gram Panchayat

“I see myself as a starter of leadership development in the future,” declares Har Gobinda Boro (Hara). For the 31-year-old from Assam, this confidence stems from his transformative journey as a Zila Swachh Bharat Prerak (ZSBP). During his masters degree in social work from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, Hara’s interest in community-driven grassroots development began to grow. After working in an NGO in Maharashtra, he returned to his hometown to join Grameen Sahara, an NGO focussed on agri-based sustainable livelihoods. The three-year stint gave him a more professional grounding in his chosen area, thanks to Tata Trusts which have been funding most of the projects there.

Hara began working in Goalpara district in April 2017. It fared better than many other districts in the state, having achieved 71.7% coverage, with toilets built under past government-funded schemes. Yet, many of these were lying defunct as the families had continued to use their older kuchcha toilets — bamboo structures covered with cloth. Meanwhile, over 31,000 new toilets had to be built as per the baseline survey 2012-13 for Goalpara to achieve complete open defecation free (ODF) status.

Hara spent the first few days analysing the MIS data available with the local Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin (SBM-G) office to understand how Goalpara’s 81 gram panchayats had progressed in terms of toilet coverage, and shared the results with the Deputy Commissioner (DC) in charge. “Looking at the red bars (denoting poor progress), he asked me to further explore the issues in those areas and present a report.”

The DC put this information out on the local SBM-G WhatsApp group that comprised the executive engineer, junior engineers, section officers, project consultants and others. Owing to this, Hara came to know of official meetings and field events where he would land up, often uninvited, to observe what was going on and chat with villagers about the issues on ground. However, things were still moving slowly.

Dudhnoi gram panchayat president performing shramdaan (voluntary labour) to construct a toilet

Three months later, when the State Mission Director in Guwahati met up with Assam’s ZSBPs and took stock, the message went across that ZSBPs were there to help, and the situation began to change. Hara was asked to regularly track toilet construction by geo-tagging numbers and present those to senior officials in the monthly District Water and Sanitation Committee review meetings. The DC also began marking his comments to the officials concerned, and accountability went up. Hara focussed his efforts on the two blocks with the least coverage – Rangjuli (66.4%) and Kushdowa (58.6%) – by making regular field visits. “I found a huge gap in linkage between the district administration and local village bodies,” he says.

The first measure was to get the Gram Pradhans to demand funds required to complete the toilet targets, while Hara made presentations to the executive engineer and the SBM director to highlight gaps and discuss the support required. The dismal strength of swachhagrahis was also of concern — 144 against a 788 required for the entire district.

For awareness building, Hara brought in students of sociology and social work from the University of Science, Technology & Management in Meghalaya as interns. Working in teams, they conducted awareness and hand-wash activities in schools, and involved Village Development Committees to ensure that cleanliness was maintained through nigrani samitis.

People were also taken to Goalpara’s model village Rangsapara — declared the cleanest in Assam — for inspiration.

Rangjuli and Kushdowa became ODF by February 2018, followed by other districts. The number of swachhagrahis in Goalpara grew to 281, and the entire district was declared ODF by the end of March 2018 with nearly 100% geo-tagging completed. Now posted in adjoining south Salmara-Mankachar district, a more confident Hara is contemplating a future in policy advocacy. “In 10-15 years, I want to be part of an agency or run my own organisation, helping youth work towards change.”

This story has been taken from the ZSBP Issue 3 — June 2018.