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Hygiene and Sanitation plays an essential role in schools of Rural India for Effective Learning

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On World Toilet Day, Swaran Singh, IAS (R), Chairman of the Srinivasan Services Trust (SST) explains why addressing the sanitation crisis is important in rural India

The students spend a significant number of hours in the school, making it more critical to ensure a healthy and safe environment for holistic physical and mental development.  Lack of clean sanitation facilities in most rural schools is crucial for potential health hazards, leading to absenteeism, school dropouts, and lower enrolments, especially among girl children, in India.  It is vital to inculcate good hygiene practices amongst children as early as possible to prevent various health risks that could be detrimental to their growth.  The COVID-19 pandemic has further prioritised the necessity of proper sanitation, hygiene, and health.

Open defecation continues to be one of the daunting challenges and cause for the prevalence of soil and water-borne diseases in rural India. This is a formidable concern for children since they are vulnerable and more susceptible to diseases like diarrhoea.  According to the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, 40 per cent of the toilets in government schools across the country were non-existent, partially constructed or unused. The report also indicated that 55% of the toilets had no facilities for washing hands. To drive sustainable change, communities and local government authorities should build awareness about the reverence of hygiene and sanitation and build sufficient toilets across villages to augment the access to sanitation facilities with clean water.

In addition, educating students on hygiene and sanitation is pivotal to driving behavioural change that enables them to embrace the change.  It will further allow the children, including girls and boys, to understand their right to be in a healthy and safe learning space. Students can be the change agents to further educate their families and neighbours about the importance of sanitation and appropriate water and waste management. Globally, lack of school toilets puts 620 million children in danger of diarrhoea, as per the study conducted by charity WaterAid.

The government and corporate trusts should work together with participation from local communities to address the sanitation and hygiene issues in rural schools of India.

One such example is Srinivasan Services Trust, which is the social arm of a leading two-wheeler company. The corporate trust has been working towards improving the toilet infrastructure development to increase the accessibility of toilets in a government higher secondary school in a village named Peranampakam in Tamil Nadu.  The school, with 72 female students and 75 male students, had toilet facilities. However, they were unusable due to the lack of a septic tank and lack of maintenance.  The students faced a lot of difficulties. They had to find alternative options for toilets, such as open fields outside the school, which proved to be unsafe and unhygienic for them.  The corporate trust and the school assisted in the renovation of the toilets and installing a septic tank. Such interventions helped address the sanitation issues in the school and promote a culture of health and hygiene.

Another inspiring example of the trust’s intervention was in a government higher primary school in Arakalavadi village, Chamarajanagara Taluk, in Karnataka. With 120 students, of which 59 were girls, this school had no separate toilets for boys and girls, which led to many issues such as lack of privacy for girl students, resulting in their absenteeism.  In partnership with School Development and Monitoring Committee (SDMC), the corporate trust assisted the school and helped build separate toilets for both girls and boys. The total amount spent for the construction was INR 3,00,423, of which the community contributed INR 50,200. Through this successful intervention, the attendance of girl students has significantly increased along with their learning levels.  The trust has repaired and renovated toilets for hundreds of schools and anganwadis across Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.

There is a need for sustained individual level and community-based initiatives and widespread behavioural change to achieve total sanitation.  Just constructing the toilets doesn’t solve the challenges. Parents, teachers, and students must understand the importance of proper hygiene habits and sanitation facilities.   There must be collective efforts to build a sense of ownership amongst the community members to understand the long-term health benefits of having adequate sanitation facilities.   Women and children play an instrumental role in changing the mindset in the overall community, and it is imperative to involve them in the implementation of sanitation interventions.

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