Historically, Nadia has always attached considerable importance to sanitation and hygiene. A number of villages in the district are home to the Namasudras, who had migrated from the Khulna, Faridpur and Jessore regions of Bangladesh. They belong to the Matua community, which has had a major role to play in social reform and education. The community, therefore, has always believed in the importance of hygiene and sanitation. Hence, Nadia becoming the first district in India to be declared Open Defecation Free (ODF) zone, hardly comes as a surprise.
In early October last year, the West Bengal government brought all state-run sanitation programmes under Mission Nirmal Bangla. The project takes its financial succour from plans sanctioned to the states by the central government under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. In less than a year, Nadia became the first district in the country to have the ODF certification.
One of the remote villages of the district, Bagula, gives you a glimpse of the government's sanitation vision. The comparatively financially sound households already had a toilet outside the residential area. "Eta amader banano toilet. Sarkar jegulo koreche, rail line er opare paben," (This is built by us. The ones built by the government are on the other side of the road).
This is corroborated by the Panchayat office in the area. "Most of the adivasis come under Bagula I. The majority of the toilets built under the project would be found there," informs a Panchayat official of Bagula II.
About 5 minutes from Bagula I, Bagula II is almost a picture in contrast. Housing mostly the adivasis, a number of toilets under the state government's scheme can be found at this end of the village. "Bagula I itself has 2290 toilets that have been constructed under the Nirmal Bangla project," informs Kunal Biswas, Pradhan, Bagula I gram panchayat.
A walk down the village testifies the veracity of the pradhan's claim. Both sides of the lanes are dotted with toilets, many places having more than one, right next to each other. The need for proper sanitation has been planted deep into the psyche of not just adults, but also the young children of the village. "Our children too use the toilets that have been built for us. I do not allow my 6-year old-son to defecate in the open. And he knows that he shouldn't," says a shy mother of three.
The task wasn't an easy one. It took years of planning and unending campaigning to make the villagers understand and value the need of effective, healthy sanitation needs. The schools of the villages and the various self-help groups were roped in to convince the people to get rid of the habit of defecating in the open.
"We thought of innovative campaign methods. For example, every Monday, the children of the villages would take an oath not to defecate in the open," informs Dipanjan Bhattacharya, Additional District Magistrate, Jela Parishad. The entire district has about 3,35,000 toilets built under the project, he says.
The success and failure of a project depends more on its sustainability over a period of time. To make this a success, the administration must ensure that the residents do not return to their previous lifestyle. In order to ascertain that, the administration and the panchayat together have come up with certain methods - one of them being the creation of the "para najardari committee." The members of this group (consisting of panchayat members and villagers) keep a regular vigil on the villages, to see whether anybody resorts to open defecation.
Bhattacharya informs that the initial findings after the implementation of the project have been very encouraging. Water-borne diseases have drastically decreased. So have the malnourishment levels. "The analysis of the health indicators for the year 2014-15 hasn't been conducted yet. We'll be doing it very soon and we hope the numbers would give us a clearer picture," he says.