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By WaterAid India

In one of my previous columns, I had shared about the fluorosis crisis which had been afflicting a village called Churaman Nagar in Gaya district of Bihar and how the entire system seemed to have failed them. There was a non-functional fluoride removal plant (FRP) which people still used under the assumption that it was giving them clean water. The results were catastrophic with almost every household reporting at least one or more cases of dental and more pertinently, severe skeletal fluorosis. I had written how officials seemed to know that the plant was dysfunctional for years and yet no action had been taken. I remember having come back in a desolate mood that evening.

Today, I am happy to report we decided not to leave the story on that hopeless note. We decided we owed it to the people of that village and in the neighboring Ismailpur suffering from the same problem. They needed to get out of this sorry state of affairs and with their own efforts. The action needed to be multi-pronged. While for WaterAid India with its existing relations with the Public Health Engineering Department (PHED) of the Bihar government, it was comparatively easy to reach out to the top officials and work with them to address this issue, it was crucial that people from these villages became central to the solution. Not just as passive beneficiaries of some top-down charity, but mobilized for their own long-term interests, taking the role of leadership in their hands.

It was with this clear position in mind that while water quality tests were conducted with people’s participation in the process, a series of meetings with the people was organized under the banner of Jal Chaupal: a campaign conceptualized by WaterAid India and its grassroots partners across various states where diverse set of community members particularly women, water practitioners, local officials, civil society workers get together to collectively share and discuss issues around water and attempt to arrive at local, sustainable solutions.

In the process, three large Jal Chaupals and a week-long campaign on the safe water were organized. People were not only made aware of the perils of the consumption of contaminated water but also how they could change the state of affairs. This resulted in a collective filing of the application for improvement of the FRP to the Executive Engineer of PHED while also highlighting the issue to the District Magistrate, Gaya. Panchayat members attended these Jal Chaupals while the local Tola Sevak (a hamlet of appointed officials) of Churaman Nagar helped organize the entire process under the guidance of our local partner organization Pragati Gram Vikas Sahyog (PGVS).

Armed with this mobilization process on the ground, WaterAid India reached out to the PHED Secretary requesting them to look into the issue in detail. It requested for permission for installation of FRPs in two hand pumps as a stop-gap arrangement while seeking the long-term solution to renovate the dysfunctional FRP.

The following results were obtained with these series of ongoing actions on the ground and in the lobbying corridors:

  • A letter seeking an explanation was issued by the Engineer-in-Chief to the Executive Engineer in Gaya on the problem of fluorosis and the non-functionality of fluoride removal plant.
  • A fact-finding committee was constituted under the concerned Superintending Engineer to look into the issue of the non-functional FRP and the persistent problem of fluorosis. This fact-finding team was set up after a formal assessment report and a letter was submitted by WaterAid India to the Secretary.
  • Soon after, WaterAid India received the approval letter from the Engineer-in-Chief allowing it to provide treated water to villagers through the installation of treatment devices in two handpumps. Post which, restoration of FRP in Churaman Nagar started. Soon enough, two FRPs of Churaman Nagar and Ismailpur were restored by PHED ensuring safe piped water supply to 110 households.
  • Besides a long-term institutionalized solution to the issue of safe water, the renovation has also helped the Musahar community in saving a considerable amount of money every month. It was reported that earlier 80% of households were paying Rs. 15 for a jar of 5 liters of water per household for their daily consumption. Now, as per their own calculation, they were likely to save Rs. 450 monthly.

The entire process lasted for about four months but a leadership structure at the local level has been created which is likely to last for many years to come. At least one sincerely hopes so. The threat of a slip back still persists in the absence of any systemic process of operation and maintenance of the FRPs. But this time it seems the people are determined and directly engaged in ensuring this doesn’t happen through their active participation in the monitoring process of the same.

Personally, this small story of two villages restores my faith in people’s action if thought through and implemented carefully!

Avinash Kumar is Director – Programme, and Policy at WaterAid India.

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