A sanitation veteran leads from the front
Gyanchand Mishra has leveraged help from the urban local body and the Project Nirmal team to improve the city's sanitation chain.
As a result of Gyanchand Mishra's efforts, Ward 3 of Dhenkanal became ODF in a matter of a month

Gyanchand Mishra is 65, the veteran of many a sanitation campaign that, he says, has ended successfully. Mixing politics and activism, his long association with sanitation resulted in Dhenkanal’s first ODF Ward-3.

He took up sanitation work in the district health hospital as far back as 1982, when he was admitted for an operation. Appalled at the condition of toilets and filth in the hospital, he took up the issue as a member of the Rogi Kalyan Samiti (RKS). “In months, the hospital was transformed into one of the cleanest.”

The epiphany

As RKS member from 1982 to 2013, he observed that most illnesses were related to poor drinking water quality, open defecation and poor hygiene practices. In 1998, he started promoting sanitation in Ward 3, speaking to people about the adverse health impacts of open defecation and the need to make and use toilets. Mishra extolled the virtues of handwashing with soap to his constituents and visitors to the district hospital before eating, after using the toilet and handling child faeces to prevent diseases and save money.

About 65, his flowing grey beard and kindly eyes speak of wisdom acquired through observation and action. Dressed in a kurta-pyjama, he explains his passion for sanitation. “I wanted a better quality of life for people in my ward so people could save money they spent on treatment for various diseases. I saw these could be easily prevented with better sanitation and water.”

Mishra deftly used religion to promote sanitation. He began talking about sanitation during the Mahalakshmi Puja in 1998. “People clean their houses to welcome god at the time and keep them clean to ensure god stays. I told them, you must always keep your houses and surrounding clean. God will not find her way into your house through the filth. Clean thoughts and minds need clean surroundings.”

This struck the right chord and people started to pay attention to keeping their houses and surroundings clean, using toilets and dustbins. From the municipality, Mishra procured dustbins that are installed very visibly in Ward 3. He says nobody throws garbage on the streets or in drains.

This change has come about over two decades. The most visible impact is the composition of patients. Now, 90 per cent come from rural areas. “This is because townspeople use toilets and do not defecate in the open,” says Mishra. But this change has also been slow. He started telling people to use a toilet by saying just as they wore clean clothes to school or work, they need to use toilets to keep the environment clean.

Collateral benefits

As the head of his Ward Sanitation Committee (WSC) from where he was nominated to the City Sanitation Task Force (CSTF), he has leveraged help from Municipal officials and the Project Nirmal team. CSTF was set up under Project Nirmal to improve the sanitation chain, from construction and use of toilets to the treatment and safe disposal of excreta and move towards a systems-driven approach.

Its role is to generate public awareness about sanitation, monitor progress and status of sanitation, validate baseline data, approve the city sanitation plan, oversee and approve materials and progress reports by the implementing agency and guide the Municipality on sanitation-related matters.

The WSC is a ward level institution to raise local issues, including sanitation, and take them before the Municipal Council. They have successfully taken up provisioning of street lights, the concretisation of slum roads, piped water and other civic issues with the Municipal Council.

As a result of his efforts, Ward 3 became ODF in a matter of a month. All regular households have toilets connected to septic tanks. These are cleaned regularly and no liquid effluents are discharged into drains, as was the practice earlier. Septic tanks and pit toilets are emptied manually or mechanically. In the absence of a treatment facility, the sludge was thrown in the nearest open area, water body or field, creating a severe health hazard. This practice has stopped as suction machines are now available.

As WSC President, he uses every opportunity to speak about cleanliness. Half the members of WSC are women. Under WSC, there is a Swacchagrahi who assists local people to file applications for toilets.

A local NGO, New India Social Organization, facilitates the construction of toilets for the poor by providing up-front finance that is repaid by the beneficiary when the subsidy is received. These loans have helped 18 families build toilets and have been repaid.

He has used his membership of the WSC and CSTF to good effect. The cremation ground that catered to five neighbouring wards was dirty and cluttered. It was inimical to a peaceful conclusion of one’s life’s journey. He spruced up the cremation ground and made it the cleanest and best in Dhenkanal. Sweepers regularly clean the grounds and keep animals out. The materials for the last rites that are not required or used are cleaned away instead of being thrown indiscriminately. Plastic bags are collected and disposed of properly. This has transformed the experience, he says, from being very unpleasant to a peaceful one.

Visitors to the grounds complained of a lack of toilets. Mishra took up the issue with the Municipality and had a community toilet built, connected to a septic tank. This is now used by slum dwellers who cannot afford toilets or do not have the space to make one as well as by visitors to the cremation grounds. Locals are not charged but visitors pay ₹5 per use. This, he says, is enough to pay for running the toilet. They can bathe in the toilet as well since “the pond is very deep and dangerous”.

To manage the toilet, he has set up a committee of 10 people of prominent local citizens including a former block development officer, a retired serviceman, the President of the Odisha Teacher’s Association and two local contractors. They provide cleaning materials such as phenol, buckets and kerosene (to kill flies and mosquitoes). “We did not include slum people or a person from the slum sanitation committee,” he says.

Another achievement is cleaning the pond in his ward that was a receptacle of refuse and wastewater from drains. It was clogged with water hyacinth and smelled foul. He filed a petition in the district court against the Dhenkanal Municipality even though he is a councillor. The court directed the Municipality to divert sewage and wastewater into underground drains and bypass the pond. The civil works were completed in 2015-16. This has helped improve the quality of water.

Simultaneously, he directed the Municipal sweepers to clean all the solid waste from the pond. People were stopped from defecating around the pond. He brought in the horticulture department to plant trees around the pond, transforming it into a recreation centre from a cesspool.

In 2003, the Dhenkanal Municipality acquired one septic tank suction machine for cleaning them; before that, the work was done by manual scavengers. “A few families are living in the slum in the ward,” says Mishra. Now, there are two suction machines. This has helped him halve the number of manual scavengers from his ward. The suction trucks have taken over their work. They have been provided alternate jobs such as sweeping rather than manually cleaning septic tanks. He says they used to fall sick often but since they stopped manual scavenging their health has improved and they are seen visiting the hospital less often.

Facing challenges

Speaking about challenges, Mishra says, “There is a slum of 390 households in the ward. He regularly speaks at meetings with them about the ills of open defecation, use of toilets, good hygiene practices and drinking water. This has all but eliminated open defecation. Two per cent still do so at a pond nearby but most use the community toilet.”

Another challenge is stopping excreta from falling from trains that pass through the ward. He has written to the Dhenkanal station master to ensure the travellers on the trains do not use toilets while they are passing through the area and bio-toilets are installed.

From ward to the city, as member of CSTF, Mishra promotes household sanitation and hygiene-related behaviour change as the harbingers of health and wealth. Using the same messages, he speaks to Dhenkanal’s citizens at public fora about the need to use toilets regularly, and hand-washing with soap and ash at critical times, to avoid diseases resulting from poor WASH. He was one of the very active councillors in the campaign to make Dhenkanal ODF that culminated with a self-declaration by the Municipality on 28th September 2018. In his ward, he has organised rallies and delivered speeches about open defecation.

Facing the future now

Now that the city is ODF, Mishra anticipates a new set of problems related to emptying pit toilets and septic tanks. The newly-inaugurated faecal sludge treatment plant (FSTP) on the outskirts of town will eliminate open dumping of faecal sludge, that is deferred open defecation.

“Most people use toilets linked to septic tanks, managing faecal sludge is going to be a challenge. The new faecal sludge treatment plant (FSTP) and suction trucks the Municipality has acquired will help Dhenkanal meet the challenge of faecal sludge management (FSM).”

The CSTF has helped to develop a low-cost complete end-to-end decentralized sanitation system in close coordination with the community through WSCs, government officials and local political leaders. Making it work will be the CSTF’s major agenda soon. Mishra says the big tasks are setting up a schedule for emptying septic tanks, setting and collecting user fees, ensuring efficient operations and compliance by people.

Gyanchand Mishra has seen two generations of physical and social change in Dhenkanal. From a lone voice for better sanitation, he is now a front-runner in a crowd of sanitation proponents. “Changing attitudes is a slow and cumbersome process but is immensely rewarding as I can see the change in Ward 3.”


Project Nirmal was implemented by Centre for Policy Research and Practical Action with support from Bill and Melinda Gates FoundationArghyamHousing 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: https://twitter.com/CPR_SCIFI

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