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How Community Platforms Can Help Bolster Urban Sanitation And Urban India’s (S)heroes

By Aravindan Srinivasan, Associate Director, Urban Sanitation

Image of two nurses on duty in a coronavirus ward
Representational image.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reiterated the importance of decentralised and localised action to be able to impact lives, especially of those pushed to further marginalisation.

It has also thrown light on how community-level collectives such as Self-Help Groups (SHGs) in urban areas are emerging as key cogs in the wheel to ensure that problems of vulnerable populations are kept at the centre.

Many have even stepped up their work to meet the growing demands of masks and running community kitchens, across the country. This opens up a great opportunity to scale up practices that support efforts to involve communities.

While local governments are mandated to play a pivotal role in delivering services such as safe sanitation, communities and their platforms are crucial to help identify gaps in service delivery at the local level. These platforms act as local institutions to give voices to the urban poor and create spaces for collectively negotiating demands of basic urban services with Urban Local Bodies (ULBs). At the same time, they provide a continuum to many initiatives, so that they can be sustained even after the exit of the initial catalyst.

A Stage Of Opportunities For Community Engagement

Involvement of community members in various ways boosts confidence and ensures the dignity of the community members, who can emerge as local champions to spearhead implementation activities.

There have been successful examples of community engagement in health and livelihoods. SNEHA’s Mahila Arogya Samiti program fosters the formation of women’s groups in urban slums to improve Universal Health Coverage.

This greatly expands the scope of community interface in local governance since the functioning of the program is tied up to the health services of the local government.

Image Source: SNEHA

Industree Foundation empowers local communities by leveraging their traditional, artisanal skills and integrating them into the formal industries sector.

The Foundation assesses the traditional skill base of communities, organise them into production units, and help them develop products that appeal to modern markets.

Both initiatives showcase how collective empowerment tackle multiple dimensions of development; providing stepping stones towards communities acquiring a voice and individuals gaining greater financial security.

Such demonstrations are, however, limited when it comes to urban sanitation. Stakeholders working towards improving complex systems of urban sanitation can draw inspirations from the health and livelihoods sectors, where community platforms have been mobilised, trained and bolstered as leaders to enhance the lives of communities.

However, there are pockets in the country where community platforms have played a huge role in creating awareness around safe sanitation practices. An example of that can be seen in Trichy, Tamil Nadu, where community platforms like Sanitation and Hygiene Education (SHE) teams have helped create awareness in the slums, discussed sanitation requirements with city officials and are in charge of managing the financial sustainability of a network of public toilets across the city.

Bridges For Urban Governance

Community platforms allow for direct two-way dialogue between municipalities / ULBs and urban poor/low-income populations. Such platforms are important to provide information on sanitation services, deliver them and drive behaviours for utilization of toilets and uptake of Faecal Sludge Management (FSM) practices. The municipalities’ active engagement with urban poor communities is critical to ensure compliance, and sustained use of safe sanitation.

Multiple Wins: Last-Mile Connectivity, Inclusion, Safe Sanitation, And Livelihoods

Enabling community-based platforms holds great potential to achieve multiple wins around improving livelihoods, addressing hyperlocal sanitation needs and creating a platform for inclusive development.

  • Last-mile connectivity: While government schemes provide finance and infrastructure, community platforms help become eyes and ears of the community. They help ensure the reach of government schemes and support in sustaining improvements through behaviour change. The involvement of community-based platforms thus can help in the better monitoring and delivery of on-ground sanitation services that can yield better results compared to top-down monitoring mechanisms. Swach Sathis in Odisha is also good examples of community platforms ensuring the reach of government schemes and support in sustaining improvements through behaviour change.
Community platforms like Sanitation and Hygiene Education (SHE) teams have helped create awareness in the slums, discussed sanitation requirements with city officials and are in charge of managing the financial sustainability of a network of public toilets across the city. Representational image.
  • Inclusion: Empowering community platforms offer an opportunity to include members of marginalised communities. In states like Odisha, ULBs are promoting inclusive and improved sanitation and FSSM practices at the ward level, particularly, among the urban poor by handing over Operation and Maintenance (O&M) of four Septage Treatment Plants (SeTPs) to Self-Help Groups (SHGs) that are run by women and transgender communities.
  • Safe sanitation and livelihoods: Community platforms like Self-Help-Groups (SHGs) and ALF (Area Level Federations) hold capacity for the last mile delivery of the two national flagship missions: Swachh Bharat Mission – Urban (SBM-U) and Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana – National Urban Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NULM) in urban areas. This becomes critical for sustaining sanitation improvements and also improving the quality of life of marginalized groups by empowering them and providing employment opportunities in the growing sanitation and waste management sectors.

Urban Local Body (ULB) officials and community platforms have often demonstrated integrated approaches to create community engagement models in urban sanitation. These are good examples of how community platforms are key to address the challenge of urban sanitation and governance, not just as beneficiaries of schemes but as key stakeholders and partners in the implementation.

Way Forward

Fostering community platforms to scale their impact requires support from stakeholders that can collectivise, educate and build relevant capacities. An interesting point to note that most of the community platforms mentioned above have been formed with the help of NGOs and civil society organisations. Often, challenges that community platforms face are around aligning with government’s scheme delivery protocols and the community’s capacity to access those protocols.

NGOs, thus, can play a great role in simplifying the process and convergence across schemes. Additionally, for cities across India to replicate and scale up the solutions similar to those mentioned above, an enabling policy environment is required. Local governments must recognise these community platforms as critical partners and provide for adequate financial support. Creating an institutional framework on jobs and skills for community platforms, with a focus on the sanitation and waste management sectors will go a long way to secure livelihoods and ensuring inclusivity.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

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With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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