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Two Meghalaya villages show the way to a Swachh Bharat

Sourjya Bhowmick | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:41 IST

The achievement

  • Meghalaya\'s Mawlynnong village was declared the cleanest in Asia three years running
  • Mawhiang village, also in East Khasi district, is also clean and open defecation free

The approach

  • The sanitation drive in these villages is almost entirely community driven
  • The Church has also played a big part in spreading awareness

The challenge

  • The achievement has led to a boost in tourism to these villages
  • Tourists litter the place with plastic bottles and food packets
  • Locals are working extra hard to keep their villages clean
As we enter the 69th year of India's Independence, our nation faces numerous challenges - from healthcare to crime.

But the most depressing trial India faces is that of cleanliness - from the garbage dumped outside our own homes to people defecating openly.

The fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been stressing on building toilets and the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan is a sad reminder of the sorry state of affairs.

Read: all our hopeful, funny, poignant, celebratory Independence Day stories in one place

Around 626 million people in India defecate in the open, according to the World Bank. India accounts for nearly 60% of the total global population that defecates in the open. Jharkhand, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh are at the top of this unfortunate chart..

The pioneering villages

However, two small villages in East Khasi district, Meghalaya, have successfully tackled the problem - Mawlynnong and Mawhiang.

Significantly, northeastern India has been perennially treated as an outcast by successive Union governments, and hence, the sanitation drive there has totally been community driven. Even more importantly, the villages have lived under the shadow of militancy for decades.

This is why the achievements of Mawlynnong and Mawhiang are commendable.

For three years in a row starting 2003, Discovery India awarded Mawlynnong the tag of 'Asia's cleanest village'. At this time, three-fourths of rural India was defecating in the open and was susceptible to communicable diseases like diarrhoea.

What made it possible?

"It was an effortless activity," says Mark West, East Khasi hills coordinator of the sanitation programme. He ascribes this achievement to the local culture of the Khasi people more than any accomplishment by the government.

West clearly states that keeping the village clean is the prerogative of local residents, and government and NGO efforts only act as a catalyst in creating awareness. He stresses on the fact that there are more Open Defecation Free villages in India.

"Washing, cleaning, keeping the pig sty and the sanitation area in a certain way and in the backyard and waste management is a central part of the Khasi life. Saturday washing or 'Snegi Siadjain' is observed as a community wash-day among the Khasi populace," says Samayita Ghosh, a researcher from Delhi who visited the villages for socio-economic evaluation.

Mawlynnong and Mawhiang lie in East Khasi district, Meghalaya. They are among the cleanest villages in Asia

"Khasis have ghats like arrangements (created by the municipality) near springs and rivers where the whole village comes to wash on washing day. In fact, widows, who otherwise have no source of income are assigned by households to do the cleaning. Soaps are other ingredients are given by the households apart from a certain agreed upon payment", says Ghosh.

Another cultural practice is the Market Day, when the entire village gathers to buy and sell agricultural produce. This day sees a plethora of awareness activities related to sanitation.

Present-day challenges

After the universal recognition that Mawlynnong received from BBC and the Discovery Channel, visitors have been pouring into the area. The cost of attracting holidaymakers has been the inundation of plastic bottles and food packets - symbols of the urban menace.

According to a media report, this has increased the monthly expenditure of the traditional village governing body, Dorbar Shnong.

But on the other hand, tourism helps the district council earn money. It also acts as an added incentive for the local people to clean up, as they need to live up to the label of being the 'cleanest' village.

Hygiene and cleanliness have a direct correlation with the promotion of tourism .The community takes immense pride in being declared an ODF, and celebrate the day as the 'wedding day of the village', to the extent that villagers dress up in good clothes, come together and celebrate.

Role of religion

About 70% of people in Meghalaya are Christians. The arrival of Christianity ushered in a wave of education and a common language, which in turn led to a sense of solidarity among the tribes, and gave importance to women.

"Missionaries have helped in improving the living conditions of the people," India's first President, Dr Rajendra Prasad, had said, referring to the North East.

Today the Church is engaged in making people aware about sanitation and cleanliness.

"The Church organises sensitisation programmes and invites us to deliver talks," says Ricky Renthlei, coordinator at Bethany Society, a local non-profit charitable society.

"The prevalence of dustbins is an example; it is a century-old part of the culture in Mawlynnong. Garbage is gathered, segregated into one place and burned."

Asked if the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan had had any significant impact on the region, Renthlei said: "Local people were aware about sanitation even before Modi came to power. We can see more awareness campaigns now, but there is little on-field activity."

However, these are not the only two villages that are open-defecation free. Inspiration can also be drawn from other successful, community driven sanitation models in Bikaner district (Rajasthan), Hamirpur and Kangra (Himachal Pradesh) and pockets of East Midnapore (West Bengal), which have had ODF status for the last few years.

India is based on some soaring ideals: liberty, equality, freedom, justice and plurality. On the 68th anniversary of independence, this series focuses on the little battles for freedom that keep those values alive.

First published: 14 August 2015, 10:16 IST
Sourjya Bhowmick @sourjyabhowmick

Born and raised in Kolkata, Sourjya is all about the numbers. He uses data to contextualise stories on a broad range of topics. Formerly with the Hindustan Times and IndiaSpend, any time not spent researching and writing is spent reading non-fiction and tackling his unending collection of films. An alumnus of Presidency College, Kolkata, he has a post-grad degree in Political Science from Calcutta University and was actively involved in student politics. He's a fan of Tintin comics, Germany's football team, Mohun Bagan and Old Monk.