The first chapter of the Class VI General Science textbook prescribed by the Maharashtra State Board is on natural resources. The chapter focuses on the impact of hygiene practices on our environment and health. Siddhant, a student of Class VI at APJ Abdul Kalam Memorial School, would often wonder how the lesson in the textbook would play out in the real world.
Siddhant lives in a chawl in Siddharth Nagar, Mumbai, with his parents and an elder sibling. His father is a bank deposit collection agent, and his mother is a health worker. Most people here work in low-paying service sector jobs. Chawls are typically two- to four-story buildings that have small single occupancy rooms next to each other on a particular floor. Entire families reside in these small rooms. Siddharth Nagar houses about 600 households.
A Disease Hotspot
The environs of Siddharth Nagar are not as congested as a slum locality. People staying here are relatively better off. However, hygiene habits and civic amenities are not much different. Repeated bouts of stomach aches, vomiting, headaches, and general ill health were endemic in the community. The government health post serving Siddharth Nagar had also highlighted this issue to the Bal Raksha Bharat staff (globally knowns as Save the Children) field staff and underlined an unusually high number of patients seeking medical consultation from this locality. The culprit were many. The poor quality of tap water caused by seepage of drain water into the drinking water pipes that pass through the gutters. The area was strewn with garbage, with people not disposing of waste at the designated community bin. The irregular garbage collection by the civic sanitation staff added to the misery. There are 34 seats in the toilet for the 600 households that use the facility. The toilet pans would be unclean due to improper flushing. The entire toilet complex had an unpleasant odour, a pointer to the irregular cleaning schedule.
Getting the Infrastructure in Order
In the meetings of the mothers’ group and the Community Managed Toilet (CMT) group set up under the Bal Raksha Bharat project, the improvement of community toilet was rated as the first priority. Under the project, each toilet cubicle was fitted with a tap. Now there is no longer a need to carry water during toilet use. The broken doors have been repaired, and the latches on all the doors have been replaced. A washbasin has also been installed, both in the men’s and women’s sections. These improvements have brought about significant changes in the way toilets are used. The information boards put at strategic locations in the toilet complex under the project is a constant reminder on proper toilet use and washing of hands.
Roping in the Children
What stood out in Siddharth Nagar was the children taking the lead in spreading the WASH message. During the initial meetings with the community, Siddhant stood out and spoke eloquently about the WASH issues. Bal Raksha Bharat staff decided to form a WASH children group comprising the community children to help the mothers and the CMT group in promoting desired WASH habits in the community. Siddhant was identified as a potential WASH messenger and helped mobilize other children in the community. Sunny Yadav, Bal Raksha Bharat field staff, speaking on the advantages of roping in the children into the programme, said, “Children influence other children and through them, we can create a proponent of WASH in each household. Children are also enthusiastic learners and are open to new ideas. If children are enthusiastic about a cause, they will give their all. Last, but not least, they are the citizens of tomorrow, and habits formed during childhood last a lifetime.” The community children were trained with the same rigor and methodology as was done for the members of the Health and Hygiene clubs set up at select schools under the WASH project. This included sessions on handwashing, proper toilet use, diarrhea prevention, water reuse, disease transmission, waste management and nutrition. The training included lectures and activities and was conducted by the Bal Raksha Bharat staff.
Taking the Neighborhood by Storm
The children, dressed in red t-shirts and caps, went door to door informing people about WASH issues. They had an essential toolkit with them to demonstrate as they speak. The kit has a liquid handwash, sugar and salt sachets, a ball, glitter, a few glasses, a few posters, bottles of water, a mobile phone with photos capturing WASH concerns in the locality. The ‘red shirts, as they are locally known, and led admirably by Siddhant, talked about hand wash technique, diarrhea control, how to make ORS at home, disease transmission ably demonstrated with glitter and ball activities, boiling of water, and other critical advice on WASH. “It is difficult to refuse to listen to a bunch of enthusiastic kids. When they knocked at my door and began to explain WASH concepts, I started as a disinterested listener. However, as they progressed, what they talked about made a lot of sense. I now boil drinking water and have practiced the home ORS recipe. The handwashing song that they taught me was fun and useful. May God bless these kids for the public service they are doing,” said a resident of the neighborhood.
The issue of poor-quality drinking water and related health issues had to be tackled as a priority. A survey of the drinking water pipelines in the locality, conducted in conjunction with the CMT group, revealed that there was no ingress of water in pipes running through the settlement. The problem with leaking pipes was upstream and would require intervention from the civic authorities. This would be a time-consuming process. In the immediate term, it was decided to promote the boiling of water or the use of chlorine tablets in households. While the members of the CMT and mother group stepped up the effort to sensitize the community, they got help from the children’s group. “The entire awareness exercise has been a success, with about 65% of the households currently practicing regular boiling of drinking water. The use of water ladles has also increased,” said Sunny Yadav, Bal Raksha Bharat.
Not only are the children active in their community, but they also take the WASH message back to their classroom. “At school, I promote the handwashing steps and talk about boiling water. The teachers appreciate my effort, and I get noticed,” said Siddhant.