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For Assam’s ‘cleanest village’ Perfection is a Road, Not the Destination

Decades before former Rural Development Minister Jairam’s remarks that India needs more toilets than temples and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s impassioned call to build more toilets than temple, community leaders of Rangchapara in lower Assam’s Goalpara district met in December  1999 and took two major decision that were to change their lives: No villagers will defecate in the open and there will be an end to drunken brawls that disturbed the community’s peace. “A committee of 10 members was formed at the dawn of year 2000 to enforce the decisions. The villagers were warned that a fine of Rs. 5,000 will be imposed on anyone breaking the rules,” says Robert John Momin, who has been heading the committee since inception.Recently, the village was declared the cleanest village of Assam and rewarded with a sum of Rs 5 lakh rupees by Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal. Asked about the difficulties he faced in enforcing the rules of cleanliness and communal harmony and in how many cases of the deterrent punishment had to be imposed, Momin’s face lights up with a smug smile: “The need never arose because everyone complied.”

Asked about the difficulties he faced in enforcing the rules of cleanliness and communal harmony and in how many cases of the deterrent punishment had to be imposed, Momin’s face lights up with a smug smile: “The need never arose because everyone complied.”

Total Compliance

For the last 17 years, there has not been any case of open defection, violence or anyone consuming drugs, alcohol or smoking in the village which has 88 households and a population of 475, all Christians.

In the midst of hi decibel advocacy by the central and state governments and sustained efforts of international organizations like UNICEF and WHO to achieve elusive target of open defecation free India and total sanitation, Rangchapara is a living example. It shows that community-driven initiatives are the most effective and more sustainable than official carrot and stick approaches.

The villagers hankered for no reward or government largesse when they set the goal of cleanliness, healthy life and communal harmony way back in 2000 and went about achieving it quietly in a sustained manner.

No brawls

Nestled in the picturesque plains of Assam on the foot of Garo hills in Madhalaya, this sleepy village is inhabited by members of the Garo tribe. True to its conviction, it is not only Assam’s cleanest but also the most peaceful.

“The village remained totally unaffected when violent clashes between Rabhas and Garos tribes broke out East Garo district of Meghalaya and spilled over to this area a few years ago,” points out Jenoritha Sangma, a village housewife.

Nearly half a dozen tribesmen were killed and tens of thousands forced to flee during ethnic clashes between the rival tribes along the border of Assam and Meghalaya in 2011. The inhabitants of Ranchapara may have achieved all this own, but the government intervention and funds helped.

The kachcha toilets build by the villages have been converted into pucca fly roof toilets. Half a dozen Tara hand pumps from Bangladesh have been installed to ensure there is no shortage of safe drinking water. The two village schools for pre-primary and middle –primary classes have been spruced up.

Role Model

A round up of the village reveals that the toilets are clean and in use. There is no liter outside homes or public premises like the church, the schools and the village library. Waste water is not stagnating anywhere. You can find a dustbin after a short distance where the inhabitants dispose of biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste accordingly.

“Similar interventions were undertaken in other villages within the panchayat and things are improving,” says Ratna Devi, Sarpanch of the Bijlana panchayat. “But there results there are not comparable to those in Rangchapara  because of deeper community involvement of the inhabitants here,” she hastens to add.

A convincing indicator of this is the state of the health of children in Rangsapara. In a state that has the second highest Infant Motrtality rate in the country, not a single death of children bellow the age of five has been recorded during the last six years.

Smiling children

“We take care that the infants are cleaned and looked after and school going children wash their hands before eating,” says Jenoritha Sangma, mother of 6 children. It is this sense of community awareness of health and hygiene issues that helped Rangapasara get the status of Assam’s cleanest village. The award has been instituted by the state government and its public health engineering department (PHED). The criteria included community mobilization, presence of pucca toilets and their condition, waste water management and awareness of health and hygiene among others. The

Omeo Kumar Das Institute of SocialChange and Development (OKD), was asked to evaluate each of the shortlisted villages that qualified after preliminary screening. It picked up Rangapasara from among the five finalists. For its villagers, perfection is a road, not the destiny.