Case study

Changing attitudes in rural India

A grassroots worker's struggle for clean water and toilets in rural India

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Pramila Maruti Sulke, 29, is a government-appointed Gram Sevak (village worker) in the state of Maharashtra in India. Gram Sevaks are the lowest rung of the development sector bureaucracy in India - although they are rarely acknowledged, they play a critical part in reducing poverty in rural India. Pramila has been a Gram Sevak for 6 years now; but she admits that for the first few years, she treated it like “just another job”. She did the tasks that were easy to achieve, and let the others drown in bureaucratic procedure.

In 2007, Pramila attended a training course supported by UK aid from DFID for Gram Sevaks which completely changed her attitude to work. During the course, she learnt skills that helped her recognise the pivotal role that a Gram Sevak plays in implementing and monitoring government schemes and extending services to the rural poor.

After her training, Pramila was keen to put her new skills in to practice; to motivate and encourage the community to take responsibility for themselves and their problems. She was concerned about the increasing incidence of water-borne diseases in Shelgaon, (the village under her jurisdiction) and thought to herself, “If only the overhead water tank in the village could be cleaned, then people would get the treated drinking water which the government supplies, rather than the impure water from the wells.” Nearly 1000 villagers relied on that tank for safe drinking water.

When Pramila had started her job as a Gram Sevak in Shelgaon, the villagers had said that the tank had not been cleaned for the last 12 years. Repeated reminders to the state government officials to clean the tank had not borne fruit. This presented Pramila the opportunity to apply what she had learned at her training for Gram Sevaks.

The next day, at a village council meeting, Pramila asked for volunteers to clean the tank. Not a single person volunteered, but Pramila was not discouraged. The following morning she dressed for work as usual but instead of her bag, she picked up a broom and a bucket and headed for the water tank. As she tucked in her saree and climbed tentatively up the rickety steps, a small crowd of villagers gathered at the foot of the tank, gaping up at Pramila in amazement. Slowly, a few of them, shamed by her initiative and encouraged by her leadership, joined Pramila in the daunting task of cleaning the tank.

The following day she and a group of villagers delightedly watched the clear stream of water flowing from a public tap. The village Sarpanch (elected president of the village council) lauded her courage and told her that after her heroic effort, a group of men and women had decided to form a group who would clean the tank every 6 months.

A month down the line, Pramila found that the incidence of water-borne diseases among villagers had substantially reduced.

Success breeds success

Pramila had won the first round and now she set herself an even more ambitious target - improving the living conditions in the village. Her target was the Nirmal Gram Puraskar (clean village award) for Shelgaon, a prestigious award given by the Government of India to villages which achieve total sanitation (including eliminating open defecation, providing 100% access to toilets for all villagers, providing toilets in all schools and nutrition centres and setting up drainage systems for all public water sources and a mechanism for garbage disposal).

Pramila knew she had a Herculean task at hand. This was a village where people still defecated in the open, and there wasn’t a place for, or a culture of, disposing of their garbage properly. Just getting villagers to change their mindsets and behaviour was not enough; there was also the bureaucracy to deal with to get government funds for toilet construction and garbage disposal units.

Through commitment and determination, Pramila enlisted a group of volunteers - who called themselves the Good Morning Squad - to educate the villagers on the need for toilets and hygienic practices. She helped villagers apply for government funds. She followed through each application for a toilet until the end. Leading by example, she convinced the villagers to clean up the village and dig pits where they could safely dispose of their garbage.

Bringing change to the community

Within a year, the percentage of homes with access to a toilet increased from 25% to 100%. The village school and the Integrated Child Development Services centre got new toilets. The village was garbage-free thanks to four garbage dumps on the outskirts of the village and community volunteers who ensured people disposed of their garbage there.    

A year later the President of India, Pratibha Patil, announced that Shelgaon was one of the proud recipients of the Nirmal Gram award. Pramila and the villagers had a week long celebration in the village. Shortly after that Pramila was transferred to another village, Solu, where she wielded her magic wand again. There, the percentage of houses with toilets rose from 20% to 100% in just one year, and Solu won the Nirmal Gram Puraskar in 2009.

Facts and stats

Pramila was trained under the DFID-supported Government of India’s Capacity Building for Poverty Reduction (CBPR) programme. DFID spent only £85 (a one time expenditure of 6000 Rupees over eight days) to train Pramila.

CBPR helps improve the delivery of public services by training frontline service providers. So far, it has trained 21,259 grassroots government workers.

Given the success of this programme, the Government of India has allocated 14 crore rupees (two million pounds) to train eight million more workers across the country.

Published 8 September 2010