The schools in Markamtola village in Chhattisgarh have a unique feature. In addition to the attendance roster kept by the teachers, they also maintain a sanitation register for the students.
This ingenious book keeps track of the children's personal hygiene habits - whether nails have been clipped, clothes are clean, hair is properly cut and combed and hands are washed after going to the toilet and before eating.
Schools have been identified as the entry point for sanitation awareness as part of the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) being implemented in the state by the Ministry of Rural Development's drinking water supply department, reports Grassroots Features.
Children are more open to new ideas and they carry home important messages on personal hygiene and cleanliness to their parents, observed B.R. Marai, headmaster of a primary school.
"At the start of the school session in July 2006, we introduced latrine use among the children. At first they were scared and hesitant to use toilets but we encouraged them. At the same time we taught them the importance of wearing clean clothes which would keep flies away," he said.
As mid-day meals are provided free for primary level children, they were taught to wash their hands before and after eating. "Every Wednesday, their nails are inspected and clipped because, as we emphasise, dirty nails are the prime source of illness and disease," Marai added.
Like her peers, 10-year-old Kiran Kumari feared she would slip and fall into the latrine. But with time and the help of her patient teachers, using the school toilet became a routine ritual.
"I have been using the toilet regularly now for one and a half years," she said proudly. Others like 12-year-old Kumlal Sahu were slower to start, especially since he did not have a latrine at home.
"I told my father repeatedly to get a latrine constructed outside our house, but it was only after Guruji (teacher) intervened and spoke to my father that he agreed to have it installed, said Sahu.
Baindas Sahu, headmaster of the middle school, said children are positive agents of change as they can break down the mindsets of their parents.
"Children do not always listen to their parents, but they have great respect for their teacher and so they pass on our message. In some cases we give the added push by meeting the parents concerned to convince them," he pointed out.
In addition, monthly meetings are held with parents at which issues like personal hygiene, safe drinking water practices and toilet hygiene are discussed.
At Pandadah village, about 48 km away from Rajnandgaon, a similar school-centric approach to the campaign can be seen. In Markamtola and Pandadah villages, both recipients of this year's Nirmal Gram Puruskar, the role of women's self help groups and metanins (women health workers) have been crucial for the success of the total sanitation objective.
Tough is a mild word to describe the hurdles faced by Rashida Khan, a health worker at Pandadah, in promoting indoor toilet use. "Nobody was willing to listen. They grumbled that toilets within the vicinity of the home caused the spread of diseases and not open-air defecation," she said.
"I, along with members of the self help group made countless door-to-door visits to sensitise the villagers. At one point we even took to snatching their lotas (water pots) to force them to use latrines," she added.
The women found an unlikely supporter in Baisakhulal, the watchman. "The roads were so dirty that even buses would avoid this route. People jeered at me wondering whether I had nothing better to do than talk of such matters. But pride in my village made me ignore their taunts and keep after them till we could all proudly claim to become a Nirmal gram (clean village)," he said.
The dynamic leadership of the sarpanch (village head) supplemented the efforts in both the villages. The sarpanch of Markamtola, Bhubaneswari Devangan, has been at the forefront from the very start of the campaign.
"Even when we brought the material for construction of latrines, people would refuse to identify the place for putting them. But we persevered, organising rallies and holding panchayat meetings until the message seeped in," she said.
Not one to let her guard down, even today Bhubaneswari randomly checks houses to see that toilets are used and kept clean. She is also in constant touch with teachers and health workers to monitor the smooth continuance of the programme.
J.K. Sharma, an executive engineer with the Public Health Engineering Department of Rajnandgaon, said the total cost of the programme in his district is Rs.200 million, of which 15 percent (Rs.30 million) is allocated for Information, Education and Communication (IEC) activities.
"The cost of the latrine has been lowered to Rs.625, of which Rs.500 is subsidy and Rs.125 is contributed by families living below the poverty line. For families above the poverty line, the cost is Rs.1,500 of which the beneficiaries pay Rs.600," he said.
Sharma said the future thrust of the campaign in the district would be on hygiene communication with greater involvement of teachers and the Red Cross.