Sanitation empowered her
Community response to the slum sanitation improvement project hinges on grassroots leadership in a slum settlement in Dhenkanal.
As a part of Project Nirmal, community structures including Slum Sanitation Committees (SSCs) and Ward Sanitation Committees (WSCs) were constituted at the slum and ward level (Image: SCI-FI, CPR)

In a corner of the Kathagada locality in the Parhatiya Sahi slum of Dhenkanal stands a small neat house. Surrounded by a well-tended garden that is planted with fruit trees, flowers and grass, this is Reena Rani Singh’s home. She is a multi-purpose local leader and is a member of the local Self Help Group (SHG), Mahila Arogya Samiti and Slum Sanitation Committee (SSC). Reena is a motivated woman who keeps her home and garden well-tended. The lanes around her house are clean with narrow drains to carry away wastewater from houses. There is no garbage scattered in corners.

Reena is a glimpse of what is possible with the right inclination and orientation. The 45-year-old mother of two has studied in an English medium primary school. She speaks in halting English, “I have lived in this slum for two decades. In that time, I have seen it transformed from a filthy place on the outskirts of Dhenkanal into what you see now. It is an exemplary slum.”

She completed her Bachelor of Arts in 1993 and is currently studying for a Master’s degree in English. “I chose English for my Master’s degree because it is an international language. I want to be able to speak it well as it gives me confidence in dealing with people, much more so than Hindi and Odia that I am fluent in.”

Her affiliations do not stop with sanitation and livelihoods. Reena is a member of the local Van Suraksha Samiti and a community resource person. This gives her additional clout in how the slum should be run. She has used her influence to good effect with the Dhenkanal municipality to secure services that have improved the quality of life in the slum, including getting the municipality to make cemented lanes and install streetlights.

Project Nirmal’s team visited the slum while it was surveying the town in 2015 to start work. The local councillor had suggested her name as a possible resource person to help organise meetings and other outreach activities in the slum. Being educated, able to speak English and very public-spirited, she was a natural fit for the Project’s strategy to make Dhenkanal open defecation free. This task was accomplished in September 2018.

The Project’s city coordinator Pankaj says, “In each slum we looked for people, focusing on women, who were good communicators and willing to take on the responsibility of social service voluntarily.”

Reena joined the SSC in 2015 and has since then tirelessly worked to improve sanitation, cleanliness and health conditions in Parhatiya Sahi slum. To this end, Reena organizes the monthly meetings required by the Project. She has mobilised the local people to demand a community toilet that was included in the City Sanitation Plan and built in early 2018.

In her monthly meetings, she extolls the virtues of using toilets, basic hygiene such as wearing slippers when using the toilet, washing hands afterwards, and handling drinking water safely. She has also taken up menstrual hygiene with women and girls, dispelling misconceptions and promoting safe practices.

Along with SSC, Reena joined the local Mahila Arogya Samiti (MAS), the lowest tier of health service delivery under the National Health Mission. As a MAS member, she works with the Auxiliary Nurse and Midwife (ANM) to provide health-related community outreach. This includes counselling pregnant women to go for ante-natal check-ups, nutrition supplementation, vaccination of children, institutional deliveries and good WASH practices. She is paid an incentive for each activity. She monitors the cleanliness of the local public health centre.

“I learnt about WASH from the Project Nirmal team. This helps me in MAS meetings to provide preventive counselling. It has also helped me to understand the preventive aspects of health as good WASH behaviour can significantly reduce the diseases prevalent in slums,” says Reena.

Reena is a powerful communicator and the municipality and Project Nirmal team ask her to speak at meetings in slums such as Parbatiya Sahi and Juan Sahi. She organises meetings on sanitation and health on special days such as World Toilet Day, World Water Day, Global Handwashing Day and World Health Day.

One of her notable achievements, the community toilet, needs to be rounded off. The structure is ready and local people are using it. There are separate sections for men and women but only the women’s section is in use, that too by both men and women at different times. In just a few months, some plastic taps were broken and the toilets got flooded. The SSC planned to restrict its use to a few local families by giving them keys to the toilet and opening just one toilet for general use. These families were to keep the toilet clean.

“However, we are awaiting a formal hand-over from the municipality to be able to complete this,” says Reena. For her part, she has leveraged her membership of MAS to keep the community toilet clean, buying cleaning materials from its funds.

Making Parhatiya Sahi open defecation free was an uphill task. It took her more than two years. She along with the other SSC members had to often sweep the lanes when the municipal sweepers did not turn up to show their seriousness about improving conditions in the slum. Now, the sweepers come to work occasionally but more encouragingly, they collect garbage from the dustbins outside the slum regularly. “This is a remote slum so municipal officials and the local councillor seldom visit it. The sweeper plays truant because of this,” she explains.

It was difficult to persuade people to make toilets using their own money, as the subsidy under Swacch Bharat Mission is paid after the task once the paperwork is complete. People are poor and most work as daily wage labourers or collect and sell minor forest produce. The local SHGs helped by advancing loans to members who repaid them on receipt of the subsidy.

Reena’s interests centre around children. “I love to teach children,” she says. In her house, she runs tuition classes for slum children where she teaches them English, apart from raising their awareness on WASH and health issues. She gets them to repeat her messages at home, turning them into sanitation ambassadors. The children speak to their parents about hand washing, proper drainage for water and solid waste management. Instead of throwing garbage everywhere, people now use the dustbins that are cleaned periodically by the municipal sweepers.

Reena is aware that not all households are working properly on WASH. Many houses made single pit toilets while a few have septic tanks. From the Project Nirmal team, she has learnt that these will need to be cleaned regularly. Manual cleaning is a transgression of the law on manual scavenging. Therefore, only mechanised cleaning on payment is possible. The charges, at ? 800 or so, sound reasonable to her, but she anticipates resistance from local people when they will be asked to pay. “We will have to persuade them, just like we persuaded them to make toilets.”

“I want the slum to improve. I now understand how the system works and will use it to our advantage. The conditions now are incomparably better than two years ago but there is still scope for improvement. Some people still throw garbage outside or defecate in the open. They need to be firmly discouraged from doing so. We want the councillor to visit regularly and attend our public meetings, so we place our demands and have them addressed quickly,” says Reena.


The overall vision of Project Nirmal was the demonstration of appropriate, low-cost, decentralized, inclusive and sustainable sanitation service delivery solutions for two small towns (Angul and Dhenkanal) in Odisha leading to improved sanitation access for all households and integration of FSM in the sanitation value chain, through enabling institutional and financial arrangements and increased private sector participation.

The project was completed in 2020 and was implemented by Practical Action and Centre for Policy Research with support from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Arghyam; Housing and Urban Development, Government of Odisha; and Municipalities of Angul and Dhenkanal.

The case by Nitya Jacob is a part of the series demonstrating learning and outcomes of the Project Nirmal based on Scaling City Institution for India (SCI-FI)’s research on water and sanitation. More on the series:

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