Mr. Shubhasis Pattnaik has taken over as Executive Director of Gram Vikas with effect from 1st May 2014.  
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titlepointMANTRA - Experiences of Gram Vikas

“Our village is better than the town. We have 24*7 piped water supply to all families, without exception. Every family has their own toilet and bathing room as well. When we seek marriage alliances, our daughters ask us – ‘ would there ...

MANTRA – Experiences of Gram Vikas

“Our village is better than the town. We have 24*7 piped water supply to all families, without exception. Every family has their own toilet and bathing room as well. When we seek marriage alliances, our daughters ask us – ‘ would there be similar facilities there as well?’” Lalita Malik of Tamana village in Ganjam district excitedly shared this, when asked what changes they see in their lives in the recent years.

The context
4,02,579 people across 1259 villages (as on March 2014) in Orissa,  100 families across 4 villages of Madhya Pradesh, 132 families across 2 villages of Jharkhand and 72 families across 3 villages in Andhra Pradesh,  today echo similar sentiments.  The significance of such community-based action is striking, especially in the context of Orissa, labelled the poorest state in India. 86% of the total population of 40 million people lives in villages; over 60% of the population is below the poverty line defined as Rs. 12,000 per family per annum.

Movement and Action Network for Transformation of Rural Areas (MANTRA) unites communities to overcome barriers of social exclusion.  Water and Sanitation as an entry point to new settlements, is not only a vehicle to improved health, but also a way of transforming hierarchical caste and gender based exclusion into equitable inclusion.

The experience in Orissa showed that exclusion – of dalits (Dalits were considered ‘Untouchables’ in the Hindu Caste system.  During the struggle for Independence, Gandhi referred to them as ‘Harijan’ or the Children of God. Today, they are designated as Scheduled Castes under the Constitution of India), adivasis (Adivasis are the indigenous people, designated as Scheduled Tribes under the Constitution of India), lower castes, widows, and women in general – is the bane of rural society. To achieve an improvement in the health status and a better quality of life in rural areas, a process where communities go through an experiential learning of social inclusion, is absolutely necessary.

A majority of the cases of morbidity and mortality could in turn be traced to poor quality of drinking water as a consequence of the callous attitude towards human waste disposal, which finds its way in its raw form to the same water bodies they are dependant upon.  Women spend a better part of their day fetching water for household needs.  94% of rural villages in Orissa do not have access to safe and protected water sources and sanitation coverage is less than 1%.

Working with poor and marginalized communities for close to three decades, Gram Vikas’ efforts are geared towards reducing the vulnerability of poor communities, and through systematic processes improving living conditions and livelihood options in villages, helping communities to gradually emerge from the orbit of poverty to a spiral of sustained growth, where they have the confidence to take charge of their own development.

The building blocks
 The notion that rural masses basically need only low-cost (taken to mean low-quality) solutions to their problems is by now a part of the national psyche. One often wonders whether suppositions such as that rural poor do not need good toilets or that they do not require running water have developed due to circumstantial constraints or due to a total lack of empathy towards the problems in the rural areas. A history of short-term low-quality fixes to their problems has contributed to their low self-esteem and dignity. It is this feeling of being sub-human that we seek to address. We also need to demonstrate repeatedly, that the cheapest solution need not necessarily be the most economical one.

Gram Vikas’ commitment is making available to the poor, toilets that are fit to be used. It is a simple logic that guides Gram Vikas in this task: “We only build toilets that we ourselves would use”. Through its early experiences, Gram Vikas realized that unless one can provide toilets of a good standard, the chances of these structures being used are very remote and these are very likely to end up just as ‘a hole in the earth’ or at best, as wood or straw sheds. There are innumerable instances where the cement platform of the toilet (after filling up the hole in the middle) was used as washing platforms. One can see villages, where the superstructure of the toilets was never built and as a result, the toilets have never been used.

The powers that be, were also of the view that rural poor do not need 24*7 piped water supply. We had to argue that uninterrupted water supply was an indicator of quality of life. The burden of fetching water in villages rests almost solely on the women and without piped water supply, it would be left to women to fetch water for the entire family’s needs. Piped water supply is possible in areas which have sufficient rainfall and where the ground water can be easily recharged. Gram Vikas believes that the right to exploit ground water is only to the extent that it can be recharged. Hence, instead of tapping substratum water from below the impervious levels, sanitary dug wells are encouraged.

Providing a bathing room assumes significance since that is the only way of ensuring that the people stop using common village ponds for bathing. Bathing rooms have resulted both in a reduction of the incidence of skin diseases and gynecological and reproductive health problems among women. The bathing room usually does not figure in any water and sanitation programme. Providing a bathing room with water supply is probably the only way of ensuring that women could bathe properly in privacy.

Another crucial component of MANTRA is hygiene education. Not only is there a need to talk about pressing issues relating to environmental sanitation and hygiene, people also need to be educated about the need for personal hygiene. The entry points, in this case, usually are women and children.

The process
The initiation of Gram Vikas’ interventions is contingent upon agreement and participation of 100% of the families in each village/habitation, ensuring that the benefits are shared equally among all, irrespective of sex, caste, creed or economic status. Even if one family backs out, the programme will not be initiated, and it is up to the villagers to ensure there is 100% consensus.

Right at the initiation of the programme a family wise plan is made to raise on average Rs.1,000 per family towards a village ‘corpus fund’, where the rich subsidise the poor, but even the poorest widow has to contribute Rs. 100. This ‘corpus fund’, placed in a term deposit earns interest, which can be used only to support ‘new families’ that may come up in future as the village grows, ensuring 100% coverage at all times. This support will subsidise the cost of external materials required for construction.
All adult women and men in the village come together to form a general body.  In the initial stages there are separate general bodies for women and men, to allow women to develop confidence to articulate their needs and concerns.  The general body elects an executive committee, which has equal number of men and women and proportionate representation of different sections of the village.  This forms the base of the democratic governance system in the village.

Gram Vikas firmly believes that the poor can and will pay, for development. We strongly contend the attitude of political patronage and the bureaucratic concessions that normally accompany the provision of any service for the rural poor and the marginalized. However, we also feel that the rural poor must have access to services fulfilling their basic needs as a matter of right, and not due to any form of patronage dispensation. There are social costs involved in making basic services available to the disadvantaged, which governments and society, at large, must bear. It is towards bearing this social cost that Gram Vikas attracts government and donor funds. The external resources that are to be raised for seed capital is accessed from a variety of sources including government schemes, development donor agencies and private financial institutions. These multiparty arrangements demonstrate innovative approaches of fund-raising and financial management.

The water and sanitation programme provides an opportunity for the community to manage resources. People make bricks, collect rubble for the foundation, sand and aggregates. Unskilled young boys and girls – whom Gram Vikas trains in masonry – construct toilets and bathing rooms. The communities bear about 60% of the capital costs of sanitation and 25% of the costs of establishing the piped water supply system. People contribute, not only by collecting locally available constructing materials, but also by supplying skilled and unskilled labour. Communities also make efforts to tap discretionary funds available with local elected representatives.

The government contribution through the Swajaldhara (Swajaldhara, a Government of India scheme, proposes a 90-10 partnership with people (with people contributing 10%). However, the water tanks constructed in villages, which work with Gram Vikas, are of sizes that exceed the government provisions (the government specifies 40 litres per capita daily consumption of water for rural areas and the prescribed size of the water tank is one-fourth of this capacity) by nearly three to four times. Hence, the costs that people have to actually bear are far higher. Gram Vikas has been able to motivate communities to make up for the deficit in all these cases.) drinking water supply programme is for establishment of piped water supply in the villages. The community also makes efforts to tap discretionary funds available with local elected representatives. Gram Vikas provides an average subsidy of Rs.3000 per family  for construction of toilets and bathing rooms, which is considered as ‘social cost’.  (Gram Vikas provides an enhanced assistance of Rs. 3500 to dalits and adivasies and in some very difficult areas of operation). This support meets the cost of externally sourced materials including cement, steel, toilet pan, door etc.  All families are uniformly provided 3 taps – one each in the toilet, bathing room and kitchen.

Gram Vikas staff engage with self help groups of women to impress upon them, the importance of personal hygiene. This approach has been successful, since educating a woman is rightly referred to being the equivalent of educating an entire family. Thus, small but instructive messages about using some form of soap (or detergent or ash) to clean the hands after one uses a toilet, bathing regularly and wearing clean clothes are passed on during the regular meetings. Due to the availability of a bathing room, women now find it easier to take care of their personal cleanliness and hygiene. In addition, children are repeatedly guided, in schools, about the importance of hand-washing, keeping their hair clean, keeping nails short and clean etc. Between the mothers and the children, there is often a mutually reinforcing cycle at work, making the need for personal hygiene an ingrained one.

This programme also underlines Gram Vikas’ approach towards creating sustainable livelihoods for the poorest of the poor. Before construction of the toilets and bathing rooms, young men and women, who are unskilled labourers, are trained in masonry. On completion of the training, they construct the toilets, bathing rooms and overhead water tank under the supervision of master masons and an engineer. These newly trained masons are assured of work for at least one year if they so desire. Only through skill training, is it possible to reach the landless, who are indeed the poorest of the poor. We believe that any land-based intervention can follow once the bottom 10-25% are taken care of. Unskilled labourers are very seldom the targets of any livelihood enterprise, as these require people to possess some amount of entrepreneurial qualities. The landless unskilled labourers have internalised a feeling that that they have no such capabilities and all that they can do is unskilled labour. To bring them out of this morass, skill building, we believe, is the answer.

Villagers identify sources to create an operations and maintenance fund, through improved pisciculture in the erstwhile bathing ponds, community horticulture plantations and social forestry in the village common lands and regular household collections. In some villages, a percentage (0.25%-0.50%) of the harvest is contributed towards the common fund. This fund is used to meet their recurring expenses for electricity and salary of the pump operator to keep the water supply systems functional at all times. One or two village youth receive training in plumbing and in handling electrical equipment and are able to service the infrastructure, reducing dependence of the village on outside support.

The first 6 years of the programme (1992-1998) were characterised by the ‘push’ factor.  In the second phase of the programme, since 1999, the ‘pull’ factor is gradually emerging. Earlier, convincing villagers to join this programme took at least 2-3 years, but now with proven results, quite a few villages have expressed interest in working with Gram Vikas.
The demonstration effect is clear as neighbouring villages are tempted to undertake the programme. Old villages often play a key role in motivating new villages. People perceive the enhanced social capital in villages, which are a part of the programme. Total inclusion of all communities and every one being treated on par are striking symbols of the progress that these villages have made. The reduction in the drudgery of women and the comfort of privacy they now enjoy are also powerful motivating factors for adjoining villages. The improvement in the general cleanliness levels of the village and the confidence emanating from the ownership of good quality service infrastructure is infectious, as it draws the adjoining villages towards becoming a part of this programme. Girls from MANTRA villages are now reluctant, and often refuse to be married in villages where there are no toilets, bathing room and piped water.

Gram Vikas realises that the goal to expand the coverage and achieve a ‘critical mass’ can be achieved only by collaborating with other organisations that share a similar vision and approach. NGOs from other states (Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Maharashtra) are coming to learn from Gram Vikas’ experience in habitat development. Pilot projects have been launched in neighbouring states, with Gram Vikas playing the role of a facilitator in these areas. The facilitator role involves working with a network of NGOs and CBOs. Partner organisations carry out the mobilization of communities and direct field action. Gram Vikas’ support will involve capacity building and transfer of knowledge and skills.

In addition to these, the people’s organisations in the villages are also becoming active advocates in the spread of the programme. The most effective springboards for the replication of the programme, however, will be the Panchayati Raj Institutions, who should have the freedom and means for implementation of such programmes.

The effects Piped water supply and sanitation infrastructure contributes to improvements in the quality of life not just of individuals, but the village as a whole. There are no losers here. The programme has had a positive impact on the quality of life of all participating villages, through reduction of water-borne diseases and hence, a marked improvement in the health situation. Due to the importance given to personal hygiene, people have cleaner habits and are more aware of their responsibility in keeping not only themselves, but also their village clean. Thus, in these villages, roads, surroundings and water bodies are clean. Incidences of diseases, especially skin diseases and diarrhoeal incidents are monitored regularly. Studies have shown an 85% reduction in the incidence of water-borne diseases in these villages.

Communities, with whom Gram Vikas works for a period of 3-5 years, demonstrate governance mechanisms with high degree of accountability and transparency. These, along with the character of social inclusion, are built into the social fabric of the village.

This first experience in managing their own village institution and financial resources builds the capacities of the community and instills in people, a high level of confidence, especially among the erstwhile excluded sections of the community. Several villages have leveraged the community bonding to improve management of other common services and resources in the village including the village school, health centre, common ponds, wastelands, etc.

The upward spiral
After an initial hand holding phase of three to five years, villagers learn how to deal with conflicts and act as pressure group against vested interests within their village and outside.  They learn to question and hold accountable the village committee that is elected by them, thus exerting a social pressure on the governance mechanisms that are established. Villagers learn the ropes from maintaining public accounts, organizing the general body meetings and elections. 100,000 families (~ 500,000 people) bound in clusters will be covered by this intervention by 2010, spearheaded by community-based organisations, like-minded NGOs and Gram Vikas’ direct outreach programmes. These families and communities bound in clusters will be ‘critical masses’ with the power to influence government policies, negotiate market relations and truly functional as ‘village republics’, as envisaged by the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi.

The experiences of Gram Vikas over the last decade demonstrates how something as basic as drinking water and sanitation is able to coalesce and bind divergent strands within communities and create new relationship dynamics between men and women, different sections of the communities, and trigger new strands of development and thus achieve a dramatic improvement in their quality of life.

Water and sanitation as an activity has the potential of bringing a village community together. Along with this being a tool to bring about total social inclusion in the village, it can also be an energizing activity, which raises the enthusiasm of the villagers, and in the long term, enables convergent community action in establishing sustainable systems through mobilising community’s own resources to break the inertia caused by a long history of marginalisation and deprivation. Thus, sanitation or water is not the issue; it is a small step towards a larger goal. It is a part of the process that will enable people to decide their own destiny. It is the journey out of a life as victims of circumstances, to one where they are the makers of their own destinies.

This initiative from Gram Vikas has been recognised through various awards including –

  • Most Innovative Development Project Award from the Global Development Network of the World Bank for the Rural Health and Environment Programme (2001)
  • World Habitat Award for the Rural Health and Environment Programme awarded by the Building and Social Housing Foundation, UK (2003)
  • Laureate in the Economic Development category of the Tech Museum Awards, awarded by the Tech Museum of Innovation, San Jose, California (2003)
  • CTx GreEn - Gram Vikas project on Carbon neutral biodiesel production in tribal areas of Orissa selected at the World Bank Development Marketplace (2003)
  • Kyoto World Water Grand Prize, awarded by the Kyoto Municipality and Soroptimist International at the World Water Forum, Mexico, for MANTRA (2006)
  • Ashoka Changemakers Innovation Award – “How to Improve Health for All” for MANTRA (2006)
  • Ashoka Changemakers Innovation Award – “How to Improve Health for All” for MANTRA (2006)
  • Ashoka Changemakers Innovation Award – “How to Provide Affordable Housing” for MANTRA (2006)
  • The contributions of Gram Vikas’ Executive Director, Sri Joe Madiath have been recognised through the following awards:
  • Outstanding Social Entrepreneur 2001, 2002 and 2003 by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, Geneva
  • Social Lifetime Achievement award of the Red and White Bravery Awards from Godfrey Philips (2005)