| Healthy Habit: A child uses soap to wash hands in Panigaon village. Picture by Sumir Karmakar |
Panigaon (Morigaon), Aug. 16: The motorboat started its journey from Balimukh and sputtered close to Panigaon after nearly 10 minutes. It had to negotiate chest-deep floodwaters — a scene similar to any other flood-affected village in Assam with muddy courtyards, half-damaged huts and women struggling to dry firewood drenched in floodwaters.
These are places where after a severe flood there is not enough dry firewood to cremate the dead. And death comes through waters that not only wash away people and animals, but also spreads diseases.
In Panigaon, there is hope, but that is invisible.
Located about 60km east of Guwahati, this village is “healthy”. Unlike every monsoon, children and their mothers in this village did not suffer from diarrhoea or jaundice during this year’s floods. This despite the fact that floodwaters from the Brahmaputra had entered the village and tubewells, their only source of drinking water, remained submerged for about a month.
The reason for staying in good health is simple: children in all 94 households have developed a simple practice of regular handwash with soaps since January and their mothers used Aquatab, water-disinfecting tablets.
Save the Children, an NGO, and their partner organisation Society for Social Transformation and Environment Protection (sSTEP) that had started a water-use project in January, set up a tubewell on an elevated platform, formed water-user groups, taught the villagers to follow handwash practice, use water-disinfecting tablets and keep their surroundings clean to maintain hygiene.
Sabita Basumatary, a mother of three, did not visit the nearest hospital at Jhargaon this year. “Earlier I had to visit the hospital three to four times during floods. Diarrhoea and jaundice were common here. But after we started using water purification tablets and soaps before meal and after using toilets, the prevalence of diseases has come down. We just have to drop a tablet in 10 litres of water,” Sabita told this correspondent sitting under a tin-roofed open platform where members of the water-user group meet and discuss how to keep themselves free from water-borne diseases.
Panigaon has 464 Bodo and Bengali residents, including 70 children of whom 51 are under five years of age. Most of the villagers are daily wage earners. A few, though, have land, cannot cultivate because of floods. The road that connects Panigaon and neighbouring Hizolgarh with Balimukh remains cut-off during floods. “Water-borne disease is common in Assam’s flood-hit villages as getting safe drinking water is difficult during floods. The tubewells here, too, come under water and so villagers fall ill during floods. We spend Rs 45,000 to set up a tubewell on a raised platform so that villagers can rely on it during floods. They sincerely followed the regular handwash practice and it is good to see it yielding results,” said M.S. Khan, project co-ordinator of Save the Children.
Paniram Boro, another resident, said their medical expenses had come down by at least 75 per cent since they started following safe water-use practice. “We had to spend hundreds of rupees for treatment and did not have food during floods,” Boro, 45, said.
Sachindra Mondal, another villager, said: “It is a relief now as we had to take our children to hospital on boats.”
Similar is the scene at Hizolgarh, the neighbouring village where 220 people, including 92 children, live. Most of them had migrated from Bethuni village because of erosion.
“We are implementing the project in 45 flood-hit villages in Morigaon, Nalbari, Barpeta and Tinsukia districts. It is a one-year project and it needs to be sustained for long-term benefits. If the state government helps, we can continue and expand the project to other flood-hit districts too,” Khan said.
According to an annual health survey 2010-11, on an average 1,310 people per lakh of population in Assam suffer from diarrhoea and dysentery every year. According to World Health Organisation (WHO), regular handwash reduces water-borne diseases by about 45 per cent.
Panigaon, in a way, has been washed clean.