“We want to bring about a change in the society, and the first place to start with is our school”, Chandrasekhar, the Food Minister of his school cabinet, said matter-of-factly. He is in the 9th Std. of the government aided Sri Karithimarayya Swami High School in the village of T. Beguru. Chandrasekhar is one of the four boys who are part of the 12-member school cabinet. The rest eight members are girls.
Chipping in, the quiet yet alert Hygiene Minister, Dakshayani (9th Std.) said, “We want to make our school a model for other schools to follow.”
Karnataka government mandates that all schools should have a cabinet where the members are given specific responsibilities. The cabinet is to be elected annually through a nomination, campaigning, and voting process. However, most schools do not have cabinets, and even if they do, they are non-functional and/or have not been formed as per the due processes. When Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement (SVYM), WaterAid India’s partner in the region, implemented the integrated WASH system and practices in the school in June 2018, they revived the cabinet with the aim of making school children responsible for the school’s cleanliness, sanitation, hygiene, health, and water usage.
The condition of the school’s sanitation and water supply system was similar to that in most schools in the region - lack of proper toilet structures for girls and boys, no proper drinking water facility, and limited knowledge of maintaining hygiene and cleanliness. Though the girls insist that they never missed school because of this, they did face a few problems while using the toilet. There were two toilet structures next to each other – one for girls and one for boys. The proximity to boys toilet made is difficult for the girls to use their own toilet, especially since the door did not function properly. The toilet was always dirty since nobody maintained cleanliness. The boys felt shy in admitting that they went outside for toilet. Drinking water was collected daily by the students from the community filter plant.
Along with building the rainwater harvesting structure, storage tank, hand wash unit, and toilet structures, SVYM also conducted various trainings and sessions of importance of maintaining cleanliness and hygiene, and the need for saving water.
Aakash (8th Std.), the Deputy Chief Minister of the cabinet said, “We saw a video of how groundwater has depleted in the area. By the time we grow up, there will be no water left for us, so we need to save water for our future.”
Lakshmi Devi (9th Std.), the cabinet’s very articulate Horticulture Minister added, “We learnt about the importance of rainwater harvesting. All families should do rainwater harvesting, only then we can save enough groundwater.”
“By learning about hygiene practices and changing our behaviour, there has been a reduction in health issues such as allergies, stomach ailments etc. which affected our school attendance earlier”, said Lekita (9th Std.), a rather shy Finance Minister.
Led by Rakshi (9th Std.), the Chief Minister, this is the second fully functional elected cabinet of the school which was formed with support from SVYM. The members take their roles seriously. The Food Minister ensures that all students eat their meals and no food is wasted. The Culture Minister encourages everybody to participate in the school’s weekly (Friday) cultural event. The Health Minister ensures that all students take their iron tablets timely which the teachers were unsuccessful in achieving earlier. The Hygiene and Sanitation Minister comes early in the morning to take garbage out while the Education Minister keeps a track on students lagging behind and encourages dropouts to enrol again. The cabinet has developed an annual action plan, which is a continuation from the previous cabinet’s annual plan and includes activities such as – plantation drive where each student planted one local tree near their homes, kitchen waste composting, vegetable garden in school, beautifying the compound and imposing fines for plucking flowers, trampling the bed etc., waste water recycling, waste segregation etc. They also did a community campaign on water usage and conservation on World Environment Day.
Ramarao NT, the school’s Physics, Chemistry and Maths (PCM) teacher had many encouraging things to say about the changes in school and the students. “The students now take all the initiative, where earlier the teachers had to push them. They organise cultural events, write and deliver great speeches on their own. Recently, they organised a big PTA meeting which was a huge success and greatly appreciated by the parents. Their confidence and leadership skills have grown by leaps and bound. The other students are eager to learn from them [cabinet] and are also eager to participate in school activities more than before. The community also recognises these changes in the school and their children, and in the last one year itself, the enrolment has increased by 30 students.”
These students have carried their knowledge back to their homes as well, where they ensure that their family members follow the same hygiene and sanitation practices. Some families like Lekita’s are now planning to build a rainwater harvesting structure at their homes. Change, as envisioned by Chandrasekhar and the cabinet, has now already been set in motion!