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The first step to cleanliness

In caste-conscious Bihar, Soriyari-Chinahi is a village inhabited by some of the lowest castes. Towards the middle of the village is a cluster of mud huts set slightly apart from the rest. Here, fifteen-odd families stay around a courtyard the size of a basketball court. The remarkable thing about this cluster is that the progenitor of all the families here is a grand old man named Shyam Lal Rishi Dev. The families are now headed by his sons and grandsons.

Every year, three to four children are born in some of the electricity-less rooms around the courtyard. Almost all of them are delivered at home, by one of Shyam Lal’s daughters-in-law, Samtulya Devi, the village midwife. Since the wife of Gyan Chand Sada, a neighbour, lost her unborn child a year ago while travelling to the nearest government clinic, hardly anyone in the village travels to a hospital for delivery of their baby. So Samtulya’s instructions are important.

Samtulya says that she does her best to ensure that infections don’t get to newborns. But Samtulya’s writ doesn’t run across the courtyard at other times. Can she ensure that her own children and grandchildren wash their hands before eating or after defecation? The answer is simple – no.

A study conducted by BBC Media Action in January 2012 showed that most mothers and children knew the importance of washing hands before meals and after defecation. However, only one in five mothers are aware of the need to wash before feeding children.

In India, more than half the babies die within a month of birth because of pneumonia, diarrhoea, and complications to do with premature delivery. Of these, both diarrhoea and pneumonia that can be prevented with the simple care of washing hands and eating clean food.

But no one in Soriyari-Chinahi would tell you that they wash their hands before they cook, breastfeed or even pick up a baby. It’s not considered important. The village’s Anganwadi worker and ASHA (Accredited Social Health Worker) are heard when they talk about institutional delivery and immunisation. But their pleas on washing hands are not taken up with the same sense of urgency.