. The dream of Amar Lal, a resident of Keljhiri village located a hundred and sixty kilometers from the state capital Bhopal, deep inside the verdant forests of Harda district, came true when every last house in his village boasted of a toilet-cum-bathroom.
Indeed, unknown to Amar, this is one dream he has in common with the world's second-richest man, Bill Gates, who during his visit to India in early June lauded India's efforts in improving its health parametres and assured of his continued support in sync with the country's national health programmes.
"I have always seen grand bathrooms in films but actually having them here, in this remote village, comes to me as a surprise," exclaims the overwhelmed Amar, who sees these toilets as a relief more than a luxury for his aging parents.
Keljhiri, with all its forty five Korku tribal families flaunting well furnished forty square feet sized toilet-cum-bathroom units, stands tall among over two thousand forest villages of the country, by being declared an open-defecation-free village.
With an aim to eradicate the practice of open defecation by 2017, the Government of India has launched Nirmal Gram Puraskar to recognize the efforts in terms of cash awards for fully covered PRIs and those individuals and institutions who have contributed significantly in ensuring full sanitation coverage in their area of operation.
For Keljhiri to be eligible for the award, the two other villages of the Panchayat need to follow its footsteps.
These units have been constructed by the Village Forest Protection Committee using profits received from the sale of teak wood from 1355 hectare of land handed over to the people for forest protection. The State Government's landmark decision has enabled the Forest Protection Committee to share profit from the income of disposed forest wealth.
This collective initiative of four hundred and fifty people is driven by their realization of the need for sanitation.
Sharing the journey of the transformation of these good intentions into action, the President of the Village Protection Committee Gulab enthusiastically narrates how the idea of constructing well-furnished quality toilets surfaced during discussions on utilization of profit money earned from the commercial disposal of teak from the area earmarked for the committee.
The committee, he said received Rs. 19, 96,000 rupees as profit. Many things were planned but the construction of toilet-cum-bathroom was the priority.
After the resolution was passed by the committee, it was conveyed to top forest authorities including Chief Conservator of the Forest B.K. Singh, Hoshangabad circle under which Harda forest range falls.
"We were apprehensive about our decision, but, motivated, by B.K. Singh's support, we started the construction of toilets in November 2011. He helped us to finalize the design and the distribution plan for water draw out. With every family participating in the construction to save the labour cost, we were able to complete construction in March 2012," says Rajesh Thakur, an active pancha representing Keljhiri in Badwani Gram Panchayat.
"For years, villagers have been going to the riverside and sometimes deep into the forest to defecate. The rainy season brought with it several problems, making it the most difficult time especially for the womenfolk. This "new" facility is a symbol of dignity. Now we can avoid many diseases, feels seventy-five year old Sabulal.
According to Mr. B.K. Singh, the most striking feature is the quality of construction which promises the survival of these structures for more than fifty years. Quality plumbing material has been used. Use of tiles and a 500-liter capacity water container placed atop each toilet unit and connected to a 10,000-liter overhead tank assures durability. The cost of each unit is Rs. 39,000.
The ground water level is an advantage with Keljhiri. The borewell provides enough water guaranteeing the use of toilets for years. Nearby flows the Ajnar River, a tributary of Narmada, due to which ground water level never goes down even in summer.
"We have also set up an executive committee within the Village Forest Protection Committee to monitor and address issues emerging in future," says Ramlal, an active member of the committee.
Explaining the water supply system, he informs that in the morning, the 10,000-litre capacity supply tank is filled using the bore well. All 45 overhead 500 litre water tanks are then filled. The committee pays the electricity bill.
Average monthly bill is nearly Rs. 500. Every toilet has a septic tank. We are planning to plant saplings of citrus fruit bearing plants around toilets to utilize the waste water, he adds.
Keljhiri has a primary school, a middle school and Anganwadi centre. Students' strength in the middle school is 42 while the primary school has 80 children. As a part of this project, functional toilets at Anganwadi centre and schools are also being renovated.
For Mithibai, this asset has brought honour to the village and to her family. She says that over a hundred children in their teens would be attaining maturity soon. Daughters-in-law will no longer face this problem. Difficult times have come to an end. It is a new beginning for the villagers of Keljhiri.
Keljhiri has carved out an enviable identity, says Urmila Bai Chaudhari, Sarpanch of Badwani Gram Panchayat. When asked about her leadership role as Sarpanch in achieving sanitation coverage, she said that she honoured the decision of Village Forest Protection Committee and extended moral support.
What mattered was the commitment and enthusiasm of every household. Inspired by the success, villagers of Khumi and Badwani which fall under the same Panchayat have started holding dialogue on ways to replicate the Keljhiri model.
The success of the project can be estimated from the fact that statements like "When Keljhiri can do it, why cannot we?" are pouring in from the neighboring villages who wish to seek guidance from Keljhiri Village for starting the process.
"What the well-off people in surrounding villages are still thinking of it, Keljhiri has already done it, emerging as a pioneering village," feels Arjun, a Class 9 student.
"My worry is that there is no provision for declaring Keljhiri an open defecation free village despite total sanitation coverage until two remaining villages Badwani and Khumi achieve total sanitation," says Gyan Singh Tomar, secretary of Badwani Gram Panchayat.
"Now, I will request the district authorities to send a proposal to Government of India citing the Keljhiri example, so that individual achievement could also be acknowledged," he adds.
The same concern is expressed by DFO Uttam Sharma. Listing the initiatives of Forest Protection Committee, he informs that construction of three stop dams across Ajnal River proved to be a boon as a perennial source of irrigation.
Around 50,000 hectares out of a total of 74,000 hectare farmlands owned by 45 families have irrigation facility. At least 18 wells constructed in individual capacity also ensure irrigation. Every farmer takes double crop, he adds.
"We are supporting the Village Forest Protection Committee to organize orientation and counseling sessions about health and sanitation related issues.
The latest agenda is construction of pucca houses," says B.K. Singh, Chief Conservator of Forests, Hoshangabad.
According to the Charkha Development Communication Network, feels that Keljhiri serves as a model forest village, which has prescribed a method to achieve total sanitations. Indeed Amar Lal and his friends have much to be proud of. By Awanish Somkuwar (ANI)