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Assam to get $2.5 mn from UN body

 NEW DELHI, Sep 18 (IANS): Assam has been allocated $2.5 million by a UN body to help improve hygiene in rural areas, stressing on the economic gains that would follow "when people spend less money on preventable sanitation-related diseases".

India is among 10 countries - seven African and three Asian - which have been identified for a five-year project. India loses $53.4 billion annually due to poor sanitation and hygiene, according to a recent report by the World Bank's Water and Sanitation Programme.

The Global Sanitation Fund (GSF) under the Geneva-based Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) has launched a special programme towards promoting sustainable sanitation in rural India, with special focus on Jharkhand state as well as Assam, a state with a population of around 31 million.

The target population is 8 to 10 million in select locations - or 1.5 to 1.8 million households - in the two states, David Trouba, WSSCC programme officer for communications, told IANS in an email from Geneva.

Noting the UN body's mission is to achieve sustainable water supply, sanitation and hygiene for all, he said the programme seeks to respond to the challenges in the Indian rural sanitation scenario.

Initially, eight focus districts have been chosen in Assam for implementing the project-Kamrup, Sonitpur, Hailakandi, Jorhat, Nalbari, Goalpara, Nagaon and Cachar.

A GSF report states that Assam, despite reporting about 75 percent rural household sanitation coverage, presents significant technological challenges on account of a large flood-prone area, two hill districts with unique socio-cultural and geophysical circumstances and because it is part of the "often neglected" northeast.

Bihar and Orissa remain an option for future consideration for implementing the GSF programme.

Trouba said the development of the GSF programme in India has involved consultations with the government and civil society organisations within the state and would focus on the districts where the sanitation status is poor.

However, the GSF is not a technologically-oriented - or hardware-based - fund, Trouba said.

"It is more focussed on 'software'. It funds programming which uses information, education and communication approaches that create awareness," he said.

Trouba said a "beautiful thing about sanitation" was that, once achieved, it yields many benefits such as improvements in human health, better economic well-being for individuals and for regions, a cleaner environment, and more dignity for people themselves.

"Economic gains come when people spend less money on preventable sanitation-related diseases such as diarrhoea, when girls can go to school because there is a separate toilet for them and thus become more educated and more productive contributors to society when a good sanitation and hygiene market is created, and entrepreneurs find jobs through it. All of these impacts we expect to see in Assam," he said.

Commenting on the World Bank report that said India lost $53.4 billion annually due to poor sanitation and hygiene, Trouba said the GSF plans to help turn such losses into gains through improved sanitation and better hygiene in Assam.

The global body will work alongside NGOs to help it out. Organisations like Sulabh International, WaterAid India and Unicef could partner the GSF programme. Government programmes like the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan will also be used for coverage.

It will also promote the use of "locally appropriate technological options". Technology less robust against floods, or something that local people or communities find "culturally inappropriate" or just plain unaffordable, would not be promoted, Trouba said.

The state government will play a key role in planning and supervision of the project, Trouba said. The project was launched in Assam June 19.

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has welcomed the GSF programme and expressed the hope that it will help the poor and marginalised rural people improve their sanitation situation and quality of life in the state.

The WSSCC has collaborations in more than 30 countries.

The grant for Jharkhand and the number of target villages is the same as Assam. Jharkhand's population, according to the 2011 census, is around 33 million.

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