Inclusive WASH Solutions: Tackling India’s Caste Hierarchy

Editors Note: This guest blog is authored by Chitra Choudhury, Manager for Natural Resources at Gram Vikas, an NGO based in India that works on a variety of development issues, including water and sanitation. In the piece, Chitra describes Gram Vikas’ model for WASH, which depends on 100% community participation, irrespective of caste or gender, and discusses how this approach is key to the sustainability of the organization’s programs.

Chitra Choudhury, Natural Resource Manager at Gram Vikas

The detrimental effects of poor water quality and hygiene practices not only on people’s health, but also on their productivity and economic life are undeniable. Designing and implementing sustainable WASH solutions has thus formed one of our main focuses here at Gram Vikas. Our organisation predominantly operates in the eastern Indian state of Orissa and since its inception in 1979, we have continuously refined our approach, taking into account the experiences made and lessons learned in the field to ensure that our interventions address the basic needs of the community in an adequate, sustainable and people-centred manner.

The result of these accumulated experiences is our ‘MANTRA’ model (Movement and Action Network for Transformation of Rural Areas), an integrated development model that is based on the core principles of inclusion and social equity. We typically use water and sanitation concerns as an entry point before we branch out our development efforts to other areas, such as education, health, livelihoods and infrastructure. Strengthening and empowering the communities we work with to ensure long-term sustainability and maximum community involvement is also integral to MANTRA.

Using piped water in the shower for bathing -- a step towards better hygiene. Credit: Gram Vikas

Using piped water in the shower for bathing — a step towards better hygiene. Credit: Gram Vikas

In India, caste-based discrimination remains a sad reality for many and accumulates in a strictly hierarchical society, where individual rights become subject to class, caste and gender affiliation. Access to water in particular is used as a means of reinforcing the caste system and perpetuating social exclusion. Members of lower castes are not allowed to use the same water as higher caste people, and often have to settle for distant water sources of poorer quality. As a result of such century-old oppression, these marginalised groups have internalised fatalistic worldviews and feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness prevail among them. Even though caste discrimination is legally prohibited in India, it remains widely practised, especially among rural populations. Development efforts therefore easily get fragmented, reaching those of higher social status while the poorest of the poor – as so often in their lives – are left out.

It was under these considerations, that Gram Vikas conceived the 100% inclusion policy as a core aspect of the MANTRA programme. The principle is simple: we only begin our work in a village once all its members have agreed on certain prerequisites. Firstly, every household has to be covered – irrespective of caste, gender and economic status – and receive the same quality of service: a toilet, a bathing room and 24-hour piped water through three taps – one in the toilet, bathroom, and one in the kitchen. The water comes from a single common water tank, for which water is transported either through a gravity-flow water system or from open dug wells, depending on the local surroundings.

Additionally, all community members have to be represented at the village governance level. For the purpose of overseeing the construction process and implementation of the programme, a Village Executive Committee, comprising 50% women and representing all castes and economic classes proportionally, is elected. Inclusive of all voices in the community, this body becomes the democratic platform for joint village decision-making and endures even after Gram Vikas withdraws.

An overhead water tower in the village of Jalarepentho, Ganjam. Credit: Gram Vikas

An overhead water tower in the village of Jalarepentho, Ganjam. Credit: Gram Vikas

All community members further contribute towards the cost of the programme via monetary contributions to a village corpus fund and active participation in the construction works. For instance, 60% of the cost of the sanitation infrastructure is covered by the villagers, while the accumulated interest gained from the common village fund is used to link future households to the established WASH network as well as for the maintenance of the facilities.

In light of the deeply-engrained caste mentality, the process of getting everyone to overcome their differences and agree to these inclusive conditions is not always easy or fast; indeed, it once took Gram Vikas 13 years to achieve full village agreement.

Nevertheless, the strategy of using water and sanitation as an entry point and mechanism to unify the villagers, thus challenging the established social hierarchies, has paid off.

Since the inception of our water and sanitation programme, the incidence of waterborne diseases, such as diarrhoea and scabies, has reduced by 85%. School attendance has increased, particularly among girls. Women, who often had to spend hours fetching water from distant sources, are now able to invest their time in more productive activities. The positive impact of self-government and inclusive institutions at the local village level can also be felt: women and lower-caste members have often taken up positions of key responsibilities and leadership roles in the Village Committees; and through the process of experiential learning, villagers have realised the benefits and potential of their collective action, encouraging them to extend their efforts and continue to assert their rights.

Importantly, we feel that understanding the local context and incorporating insights gained by our staff in the field has been key to this success; and it will continue to play a fundamental role in the extension of the Gram Vikas initiative and our design of future WASH solutions.