On a Toilet Trail

Mohan Das Karamchand Gandhi – affectionately and respectfully called Bapu or Mahatma - who played a key role in the Indian freedom struggle, had once said “Sanitation is more important than independence.” Paying tributes to Gandhiji on his 143rd birth anniversary, the Indian government has decided to take this message forward by starting a Nirmal Bharat Yatra (Clean India March). This 2000 kilo metres long Yatra is being launched on October 3 from Wardha district in Maharashtra. In the next 56 days it proposes to cover five states which, according to the 2011 census have the lowest sanitation coverage in India, namely Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and lastly Bihar where it would culminate on November 19, which is World Toilet Day.
With more than 600 million people defecating in the open in the absence of basic sanitation facilities, India has the dubious distinction of a nation with the highest number of people living without toilets in the world. Ironically, more than 300 million people use mobile phones in this country but do not use toilets.

The  Minister for Drinking Water and Sanitation, Mr. Jairam Ramesh admitted that poor sanitation/ hygiene is the biggest cause of malnutrition in India. According to him, “This march should be seen as a social mission which would target over 90 million people, sensitizing them to end open defecation. The Yatra is in fact an effort to send across a message among the masses about the importance of sanitation. Its objective is to make India an ‘open defecation free’ country within the next ten years besides making sanitation a national obsession.”

International organizations like WASH United (a water, sanitation and hygiene advocacy organisation) and Quicksand Design Studio (an India-based innovation firm) are basically the brains behind this innovative awareness drive. WASH United, which has pioneered new approaches using the power of sports super stars, interactive games and positive communications to promote safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, is already working with dozens of partners in Africa and now spreading its work area in India too.

Coinciding with the T20 matches, the yatra organizers have also pitched in a few cricket players along with some Bollywood film stars to make the messages more attractive for people. Famous actress Vidya Balan has been made the Brand Ambassador for sanitation.
The organizations quote UNICEF studies, which reveal that in India more than 1,000 children die of diarrhoea every day. The studies also confirm that proper hygienic behaviour can prevent diarrhoeal diseases by 40% and respiratory ailments by 30%. Moreover, women are more severely affected by lack of toilets. They are forced to go to open fields when it is dark, making them targets of crimes like rape and molestation and/ or prey to wild animals.

For Thorsten Kiefer, Executive Director of WASH United, “The Yatra has three key goals: promoting hand-washing with soap at critical times, making toilets more relevant and desirable, and tackling the persisting taboo around menstrual hygiene management. It would be a sort of a toilet and hygiene ‘mela’ (fair) replete with interactive and entertaining activities revolving around the long-neglected issues of sanitation and hygiene across the country. ”

Alka Pande- CNS
(The author is a senior journalist based in Lucknow, India)