In Tamil Nadu, These Kickass Kids Are Fighting Disasters And Improving Sanitation

Posted by bgiddu in Environment, Society
May 23, 2017

13-year-old Anitha, points to the bushes swaying at a distance from her house, and confesses, “Earlier I used to go behind those bushes, but since they built a toilet here behind my home, I don’t have to go there anymore, especially at odd hours.”

Born to landless labourers, Anitha lives with her parents, grandmother and seven-year-old brother in Vasanankuppam village in the Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu. She beams with pride when she recounts how she learnt to use a toilet in school, and has now taught the same to everyone in her family, constantly encouraging them to use the newly built toilet instead of defecating in the open.

This is not a unique case. Efforts are being made across the country through various initiatives of NGOs, as well as local and state governments, to use children to bring about behaviour change in their communities. This is a classic case of using the phenomenon of pester power, or nag factor (commonly used to describe the relentless influence children have over their parents’ buying habits), for the greater good.

The need for the children of our country to be well-equipped to shape a better tomorrow is one that cannot be overstated. The pursuit of reducing vulnerability and ensuring a healthy population in the country will remain incomplete without factoring in the vast expanses of people living in the rural and marginalised pockets of India, and without involving children in the process of addressing these issues.

Recognising this, Save the Children, an NGO that works on child rights, safety and disaster relief, has made significant strides in Cuddalore, a district in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The floods that hit Tamil Nadu in 2015 in the month of December brought many regions of the state to a standstill. At the same time, the world also saw the grit, as well as the compassion of the people of Tamil Nadu, splashed across the media in heroic stories. On my recent visit to the Cuddalore district to meet with communities that were affected by the floods, I had the unique opportunity to witness some of the work that the NGO has been doing there.

The first village I visited was Vasanankuppam Colony, Cuddalore District, where, like other underdeveloped and underserved parts of the country, people were used to defecating in the open, behind bushes. Where for women, the threat of sexual harassment and the probability of diseases always loomed large. With the intervention of Save the Children, as part of the Swachh Bharat campaign, the village took on a challenging, yet necessary goal – to overcome the problem of open defecation.

Today, behind 79 households in the village, a toilet has been built. Apart from building toilets, efforts have been made to mobilise women from within the communities to sensitise them about the significance of hygiene. These women have been trained and equipped with information on how to bring about behaviour change within the people of the village, such that they learn not just to use toilets, but also learn how to keep them clean.

These efforts have also recognised the pressing need to ensure that the villagers were not inclined to use the toilets as storage space but as a means of incorporating hygienic practices in their everyday lives. Save the Children also has its presence in schools where they engage with young children to create awareness amongst them on the ramifications of open defecation. These children have since become active agents in changing the mindset of the adults in the village as well.

Appreciating the efforts of the organisation, a woman from the village admitted that it was due to the interventions of Save the Children that people have overcome inhibitions and fear about using these toilets. Similarly, a local representative of the organisation said, “With the cooperation of teachers at schools, children have begun using these toilets, and are successfully convincing their families to incorporate such practices in their lives as well.” Sustained efforts of this kind by the NGO over the past ten months have succeeded in making Vasanankuppam Colony an open defecation free village.

In another village, Krishnankuppam, also situated in the Cuddalore district, Save the Children has been working with children, going to government and government-aided schools that were affected by the floods. The children, aged 10-15, at these schools have been trained in disaster preparedness and prevention, with a focus on building resilience that will allow them to thrive and survive.

These children are equipped with tools and resources to identify disaster prone areas within and outside their schools and in the village, such as an open drain, a crack in the ceiling or hanging wires, which are immediately brought to the attention of authorities by the children. To deal with such situations, they are given basic training through demonstrations of rescue operations in times of disasters. This includes inter alia CPR, how to evacuate disaster areas, how people can be moved out of disaster areas without access to a stretcher, and how to crawl in and out of disaster-hit areas with injured persons.

To gauge the interest of the children and to keep them engaged, they are encouraged to illustrate disaster situations and their suitable responses by drawing them on charts. They are trained in evacuation plans, enabling them to identify safe zones for everybody to run off to, if and when disaster strikes, and appropriate responses in such situations.

I was left in awe of the incredibly effective strategies employed to implement disaster management skills in the village, by the NGO’s mapping of the vulnerability of the schools as well as the village, vis-à-vis disasters. Save the Children works with the local authorities there, in order to ascertain that the schools and disaster management committees are functional and receptive to potential disaster risks brought to their attention by the children. It is always heartening to see the motivation of the various stakeholders (in this case, the state government disaster teams and master trainers) involved in activities at the grassroots, seeking to empower people of all ages and sexes alike.

Prem, a dynamic 14-year-old boy, studying at the Holy Michael Middle School, was thrilled about having learnt skills that not many in the village possessed. Feeling nothing short of being empowered, he said, “The training I received in disaster prevention has not only prepared me for possible disasters but has also made me confident enough to rescue my family and other community members if a disaster strikes my village.”

It is no secret that to see positive transformations in the future of a country, its children need to be sensitised and educated on critical issues central to the development of the country. There is no better time for this than in their formative years when they are abundantly enthusiastic to make a difference in the society that they inhabit, and have the power to act as positive agents of change in their families and communities.

The author Bhavani Giddu is an advocacy communication specialist with Footprint Global Communications and tweets as @bgiddu. 

Image Credit: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint via Getty Images