Pradeep Mewada: Whistling in change

P Anima | Updated on March 09, 2020

How Pradeep Mewada and his band of boys got the people of Raipur Nayakheda to build toilets in their homes and stop defecating in the open

Up until four years ago, Raipur Nayakheda, a village on the outskirts of Bhopal, rustled to life well before sunrise. The women sneaked out in the dark, lota in hand and headed for the bushes. The men followed suit; they chose the fields or the jungles nearby. The children thought little of defecating on the edge of the streets.

This regular morning scene at the village was disrupted for the first time around four years ago by a diminutive 13-year-old boy armed with the unlikeliest of weapons: a whistle.

Pradeep Mewada’s whistle call would pierce the still, early-morning air long before the villagers stepped out to defecate. It was the rallying call for his team — an army of schoolchildren. They wriggled out of their cots, eyes still heavy with sleep, and joined their team leader at the panchayat house. Pradeep would then dispatch small teams of four across the village, each tasked to confront those defecating in the open.

The 17-year-old’s battle to change a deeply entrenched habit was not without hurdles; he was frequently mocked, abused, threatened and roughed up. He, however, remained stoic and determined to change the ways of his fellow villagers. Today, thanks to Pradeep’s efforts, Raipur Nayakheda is officially Open Defecation Free.

A swachh village

Wearing a t-shirt that says ‘Everyone is a changemaker’, Pradeep waits for us near a toll booth in Fanda, a few kilometres from Raipur Nayakheda. He rides ahead on his bike, weaving past wheat fields heavy and golden with grain. His younger brother Deepak hands us a bunch of chickpea plants and then navigates us to the village. “Leejiye, madam, chana khayiye (Please have the chickpea),” says the 12-year-old.

As we slit open the pods and munch on the chickpeas, Raipur Nayakheda — a village with bright blue houses and home to 300 families — appears before us. Its unpaved streets are spotless. Small toilet units dot the compounds along the way. There is an open drain or two, but there are also public collection bins for wet and dry waste. Garbage is collected from households every few days and a plot has been set aside in the village for the waste.

Raipur Nayakheda’s tryst with cleanliness took off when it put an end to open defecation in 2014. “The villagers call him Pradeep dabba-dol (the act of overturning the lota) — the name has stuck,” says Chitra Mewada, Pradeep’s mother. The opposition he faced could have dented any teenager’s spirit. But Pradeep managed to stand his ground and the credit for this goes to his family — doting parents and four siblings — who are his strongest support system.

Pradeep was inspired to change the status quo by the volunteers of Samarthan, a non-governmental organisation that works in rural Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. While they spread awareness about sanitation and cleanliness, the onus to act clearly falls on the villagers. “None of the houses in the village, except for one, had a toilet. The road you crossed to get to my house was the filthiest,” Pradeep recalls.

The ‘Dabba Dol’ gang

He made a team of schoolchildren monitor and control instances of open defecation, and they called themselves Dabba Dol. He also found a handy tool: a whistle. “I decided that the whistle should be what villagers identify me with,” he recalls. Convincing villagers to change was a long and daunting process, but his frontline soldiers lived up to their tasks. The children began a conversation on the need to keep the village clean. Interactions went on for days and involved convincing each villager who stepped out with a lota to construct a toilet at home.

This was also when Pradeep first heard of the Prime Minister’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and the ‘Shauchalay Yojana’, under which urban and rural poor were granted financial assistance to build toilets in their homes. “Many villagers, including mine, got ₹9,000 to build toilets,” says Pradeep. With the financial assistance, many families transitioned smoothly to using toilets. But a few refused to budge.

The greatest challenge, Pradeep says, was in changing mindsets. Defecating in the open was almost a social practice. Very often, the army of children was ticked off and abused by villagers. When conversations didn’t help, the kids upped the ante. “If people continued to defecate in the open, we moved to the next level. We would just upturn their lotas and spill the water,” Pradeep says.

Predictably, the act irked those rushing to relieve themselves. Many landed up at Pradeep’s house to complain. “I was beaten up quite a few times,” he says. However, Pradeep’s parents stood by him. All those who came with complaints were given a lesson or two in sanitation and cleanliness by the parents. “Initially, we tried to stop him as we were worried for his safety,” says Chitra. “But we realised soon enough that he was right.”

Garnering support

Pradeep’s first allies in the village were women. Most of them felt vulnerable relieving themselves in the open and were more than willing to embrace the concept of a toilet at home. Chitra played a big part in getting the women together.

The kids, meanwhile, kept up their effort. They would spill water, whistle and chase after those who stepped out to defecate and, if everything failed, begin a game of cricket in front of the offenders. Little by little, the village changed. And Pradeep’s legion of supporters grew.

Even the temple administration pitched in. “On the temple announcement system, I would call out those who were defecating in the open. I started taking names and the directions in which they had ventured. The fear of public shaming deterred many,” says Leela Kishan Mewada, an administrator at the local temple.

Four years on, toilets are a feature in almost all households. Ajab Singh Mewada, Pradeep’s father, can barely hide his pride. “There is hardly a house in the village that doesn’t have a toilet now. Everybody is happy about it,” says the farmer.

The teachers and students of the government middle school in Raipur Nayakheda have pitched in wholeheartedly for the campaign. While students took out rallies to create awareness, teachers such as BD Prajapati and Sobharam Malviya helped make posters.

“Pradeep had to face a lot of opposition. People questioned if he had taken a cleanliness contract for the whole village,” recalls Prajapati. The teacher commends the teenager for not giving up. “Look, now he is winning appreciation.” Prajapati has been working at the village school for the past 33 years. “I remember how dirty it was earlier. Now the village is 99 per cent clean.”

A role model

In the middle school, younger children look up to Pradeep and eloquently launch into the virtues of cleanliness and hygiene. Most have a story about how they convinced a third person to build a toilet at home. The larger conversation around hygiene has had a positive impact, notes Malviya. “The mindset has begun to change and that is the biggest difference. Students now come to school well-groomed,” he notes.

Prajapati puts Raipur Nayakheda’s new turn in perspective. “When children show the way, it’s better that the elders follow.” For his efforts, Pradeep was awarded the ‘Mukhyamantri Swachhta Samman’ by former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan in 2016. He is also an Ashoka Fellow, a recognition given to social entrepreneurs.

Raipur Nayakheda, however, continues to be a work in progress. The gruelling central Indian summer leaves it parched. Water becomes the most treasured commodity and maintaining a toilet is a challenge. “Villagers would mock him and say that in summer Pradeep would bring in tankers to supply water for toilets,” recalls Chitra. It was a big worry, admits Pradeep. But then the panchayat pitched in and brought water tankers.

The teenager notes that toilets had also grown to be a habit. “The women insisted on using toilets, summer or not. So, when families brought water from wells far away, they started to portion out water for the toilets too,” Pradeep says.

The panchayat and elders have grown to be vital stakeholders in the movement started by the children. Neighbouring villages, such as Amrod, have followed suit and have taken up campaigns to stop open defecation. In others, such as Pipaliya Mira, Pradeep was invited to make teams of children monitor the practice and put an end to it.

Pradeep has bigger plans for his village, including making it plastic-free. But there are small personal ambitions, too. A second-year student of Economics at Sri Satya Sai University of Technology and Medical Sciences at Sehore in Bhopal, Pradeep says: “I want to improve my spoken English.” He has taken up spoken English classes and also works part-time in an electronic shop. “He is paid ₹50-100 a day. That takes care of his travel expenses. We manage to raise money for his coaching classes and college. We are educating all our children and it is tough. Sometimes, we have to borrow, but as long as they want to study, we will support them,” Ajab Singh says.

Pradeep, meanwhile, has his goals set. “Social work is where my heart is,” he declares.

Published on March 09, 2020

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