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Bureaucrat of the month

Making Assam’s Sivasagar district open defecation-free

Meghna Chukkath, New Delhi, March 2016 


In a bid to provide accessible toilets to people and encourage them to develop good hygiene practices, Virender Mittal, Deputy Commissioner of Sivasagar District of Assam, has embarked on a journey to make his borough open defecation-free (ODF). In a conversation with Bureaucracy Today, the IAS officer shares the details of the successful initiative which made the Lakwa Block free of open defecation and his plan to follow suit in other villages.  

Often addressed as “DC Sir” by locals, Deputy Commissioner Virendra Mittal has been on a mission to make the entire Sivasagar an open defecation-free district. Until recent times the percentage of households whose members openly defecated was around 23.92% in the district. However, with a little awareness and support from various groups the Deputy Commissioner was able to execute his sanitation initiative which drastically lowered the percentage of people opting for open defecation. 
In fact, Lakwa, one of his administrated blocks, was declared ODF last year. “Although Lakwa is the first block of the entire North-East Region (excluding Sikkim) to be declared as ODF, the challenge of using non-sanitary toilets in Assam remains. There is limited access to sanitation in many areas, especially in the tea garden areas of Upper Assam, as compared to other areas of the State,” says Mittal.
Soon after assuming the office of Deputy Commissioner, the IAS officer had a brief conversation with two visiting UNICEF officials regarding the plight of people due to unhygienic conditions. And it was this discussion with them that became a trigger point of his sanitation campaign. 
“I took this as a challenge and decided to make at least one of my blocks ODF by the end of the year,” says Mittal, a 2007-batch IAS officer of the Assam Cadre. 
However, making the block ODF was a challenging task as most of it was inhabited by the tea tribe, a heterogenous community whose members were brought as bonded labourers to work in the tea gardens of Assam. “Availability of skilled masons was a big challenge,” says Mittal. But slowly and gradually through awareness programmes villagers were inducted as masons. Classes were organized and masons were trained in the construction of safe leach pit toilets. “We also created a pool of trained master masons to monitor and supervise the work of trained masons,” he adds. 
Streamlining the execution of his mission, the Deputy Commissioner ensured to conduct meetings from time to time.  “Every Saturday I used to visit the Panchayat office and on a rotation basis reviewed the progress along with NGOs and officers who were directly involved in the construction of toilets,” says Mittal. Apart from his regular personal site visits to Lakwa, this tech-savvy Deputy Commissioner kept in touch with his team on a Whatsapp group called ‘Lakwa ODF Initiative’. 
The DC decentralized the entire funding system. “I also reduced the time for the RTGS system which made online transaction easier. The process of releasing payments to NGOs and Self Help Groups (SHGs) has been simplified through the online transfer of funds which is unique in the entire State,” says Mittal. 
Constructing household toilets was not the only task before the Deputy Commissioner. He also upgraded the old defunct toilets which were built under previous Government schemes like the Total Sanitation and the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan. “Another challenge for us was to upgrade old toilets for which we took help from the MGNREGA scheme and converged them into our programme,” explains Mittal. 
As his mission was to provide accessible toilets which was not just restricted to households, the Deputy Commissioner went the extra mile and got hygienic toilets constructed in Anganwadi centres, health centres, schools and public places.   
Under the aegis of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) and the Mukhya Mantri Nirmal Aru Seuj Abhijan (MANASA), we undertook the project in Lakwa to make it open defecation-free. Uptil now 5,300 toilets have been constructed in the Lakwa Block which has 8,661 households by utilizing  funds from the Central Government’s Swachh Bharat Mission, State Government funds, funds from the Zilla Parishad and those generated by CSR activities of PSUs like the ONGC and BPCL and private entities like ICICI Bank. “In our journey the Panchayat’s President, the ward members and Public Health Engineering Department officers played a very significant role,” Mittal tells Bureaucracy Today.
In one such incident, a surrendered member of an insurgency group, United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), sold his bike and donated funds to construct toilets and fulfil his commitment towards society, as per the Deputy Commissioner. “The impact of the project has been very positive,” says the IAS officer who took over as Sivasagar DC in November 2014. 
Mittal says, “I may be the leader of this team but I cannot win the match alone. I may be a swachhata doot but the feat was only possible with the due diligence of everyone who supported this movement. Political leaders, field workers, community leaders, NGOs and even masons triggered the movement for an ODF status.” 
While the Deputy Commissioner has devised four Ms which guide them — motivation, money, mason and monitoring in the successful completion of the Individual Household Latrine (IHHL) project under the Swachh Bharat Mission, he has managed to whip up an enthusiastic team, which is committed to making Sivasagar one of the cleanest districts of Assam. Now with Lakwa being declared as an Open Defecation-Free block, Mittal has directed his efforts towards other blocks under his administration. 
The Bureaucracy Today editorial team appreciates the efforts of DC Virender Mittal who initiated an innovative campaign that aims at spreading the message of sanitation and hygiene and unanimously designates him as Bureaucrat of the Month for the March 2016 edition of the magazine.


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