India Interior

‘Lather is the best medicine’

Usha Rai | Updated on November 29, 2019

A class act The Hygiene Corner in the school demonstrates best practices related to hand-washing, sanitation and management of plastic waste. - USHA RAI

Reinforcing the lesson A hand-washing station at a school in Nathupur, Patna. - USHA RAI

A hygiene drive with ‘soap banks’ is helping school children in Bihar stay healthy

At the upgraded middle school of Nathupur, Phulwarisharif of Patna district, a few days before Republic Day this year, the headmaster began appealing to students to bring soaps to school instead of the small plastic flags that they normally brought. It was a message that was echoed by class teachers and the student leaders of the Bal Sansad of the health and hygiene education programme.

Over the last couple of years, though government schools have hand-wash stands and toilet facilities with water, what is often missing is the soap for students to wash their hands properly before mid-day meals, and after using the toilet. So, the idea of students and the community contributing soaps to ensure proper and sustained hand-washing was mooted with some apprehension. Would it work?

On Republic Day, children arrived scrubbed clean, 272 of them carrying five-rupee soaps that were collected and heaped at the base of the national flag as the start of a new initiative. With this collection, the soap bank was inaugurated. It’s a large box, neatly labelled ‘Soap Bank’, but kept locked. Like money handed out on the request of depositors in a bank, the soaps are handed out as needed by the students. Seven months later, on Independence Day, children contributed again to the bank with 100 soaps. Now, on birthdays, festivals and special occasions, instead of chocolates and mithai, soaps are gifted to the school’s soap bank.

The innovative ‘Soap Bank’ idea, mooted by Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) and Reckitt Benckiser working in sync under Swachh India campaign, caught on quickly and today there are over 200 soap banks in Bihar schools.

The school hygiene education programme prioritises school sanitation and hygiene education for students. It works with teachers as well as school management committees to raise student awareness on key hygiene behaviour. Its target is to reach 3,00,000 students and 3,000 schools in a year from 2019 and 2020.

The soap banks are seen as a way of involving the community in school hygiene by providing soaps and supporting their children while they donate soaps to the school from their pocket money. It is estimated that a school child requires four 60-mg soap bars in a year for hand-washing to develop into a habit for a lifetime.

At the Nathupur School, the name of the boy or girl who donates soaps is entered in a log book. Gautam, the Class VIII student who is also the Prime Minister of the Bal Sansad, says a log sheet is hung next to the Soap Bank and every time a soap is donated or taken out of the bank, it is entered in the log sheet. The school hygiene team also ensures, every morning, that there is soap at the wash-stands and toilets in the school. Students are exhilarated when their names are mentioned for the work they have done under the school hygiene programme.

Plastic waste disposal too

But the soap bank is just one aspect of the work done by the hygiene teams. They also collect plastic waste found on the road on their way to school and deposit it a big gunny bag called Pannibaba and hung prominently in the cleanliness campaign room. When the bag fills up, it is taken to the proper dump for disposal.

Right at the entrance to the school a wall poster emphasises the importance of hand-washing through verse.

The health corner at the school is designed in a colourful manner with an assortment of hand-crafted products made from waste. Large empty water bottles are stuffed with bright coloured toffee and chocolate wrappers. Four bottles of the same size, tightly packed with the wrappers, form the sturdy legs for an innovative table or stool, says Poornima, a class VII student and member of the hygiene team. In addition, they make planters out of plastic bottles. There are two dustbins for dry and wet waste in the school.

The education minister of the Bal Sansad, Sagar Kumar, goes from house to house after school hours, asking parents to provide full-sleeved shirts and trousers so that students are saved from mosquito bites and chances of contracting dengue and malaria.

Their own Chand and Suraj

Komal, as deputy prime minister of the Sansad, has the responsibility of ensuring that homes, as well as the school, are kept clean. Swachh minister Pooja says not only are hands washed but nails are cut and hair is oiled and plaited. At the prayer meeting every morning, the cleanest and neatest looking girl and boy are selected and called the school’s Chand and Suraj or moon and sun.

Gautam is also into water harvesting and insists that his grandparents too should wash their hands before their meals. “Initially, they try and put us off saying ‘we used mud in our days to wash our hands’, then give us money and ask us to buy them soap.” So the lessons learnt by the students are gently handed down to the community.

Spurring the sanitation and cleanliness campaign are some grim facts about diarrhoea being the leading cause of malnutrition in children and the second leading cause of death of children under five years. Good sanitation habits and hand-washing with soap can reduce 44 per cent of deaths due to diarrhoea, 20 per cent of respiratory illness and ensure 50 per cent less absenteeism of students from school.

“Lather is the best medicine,” says an AKF team member as he points out that the rate of transmission of diseases is higher in schools. The collection-based model of the soap banks addresses the existing gap of hygiene resources in schools.

The writer is a senior Delhi-based journalist

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Published on November 29, 2019
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