Preparing the leaders of change for sanitation

At a sprawling field in Jalalpur – on the outskirts of Gwalior district in Madhya Pradesh state-- over 10,000 people raised their hands flashing their first three fingers and vouched their commitment to: always use a toilet; always wash hands before handling food and after going to toilet; take forward the message of sanitation and hygiene to at least three more people. The occasion was the Great WASH (Water Sanitation Hygiene) Fair organized by the on-going Nirmal Bharat Yatra under Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan. Jalalpur was the fourth stop of the Yatra which was flagged off from Vardha (Maharashtra) on October 3 and now moves through villages of Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar – the five states recording lowest sanitation coverage (between 14% and 22%).

The yatra was conceived by Berlin-based Wash United and an Indian outfit Quicksand Design Studio, and is being executed by agencies like WaterAid, WSSCC (Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council), Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), Arghyam/Hindi Water Portal, Goonj, UNICEF and FANSA (Freshwater Action Network South Asia).

The most attractive feature of Yatra is Great WASH Fair, which is no ordinary fair--it is a toilet and hygiene fair. The objective of the fair is to raise awareness in people on sanitation and hygiene through various interacting and innovative games. The fair simply focuses on these issues and teaches people how they can reduce diarrhoeal diseases by 40% and respiratory diseases by 30% only if they wash their hands with soap, especially after contacting excreta. The Jalalpur ground in Gwalior saw a swarming crowd of boys and girls who queued up for various games and asked pertinent questions. The right answer got them a bar of soap, after getting which they promised to wash hands before handling food. The common thing in all the games was that each game carried a message about toilets, washing hands and menstrual hygiene.  “Children are the most powerful messengers and looking at the number of children who attended the event we can confidently say that they would be the leaders of change”, says Suresh Jaiswal, the Programme Officer at WaterAid India Bhopal office.

It is a welcome change to see people resolving to sanitation and hygiene, especially in a country like India, which, due to lack of sanitation and hygiene, is losing over 6% of its GDP, annually. Although India can boast of having 900 million mobile phone users, but at the same time it ia a matter of great shame that less than 300 million of its inhabitants have access to toilets. Every day in India over 600 million people defecate in the open even and more than 1,000 children die due to a preventable disease like diarrhoea. According to Public Health Association and UNICEF studies, only 53% Indians wash hands with soap after defecation, 38% wash hands with soap before eating and only 30% wash hands with soap before preparing food. UNICEF also reports that only about 11% people dispose off their child’s excreta in a safe way whereas the rest either eave it in the open or throw it in the garbage.

In such scenario, this eagerness for sanitation by millions of people, (and that too in a place like Madhya Pradesh which ranks lowest in sanitation coverage with less than 14% of toilet coverage) is indeed a ray of hope. Thorsten Kiefer, Executive Director of WASH United explains, “Before conceptualising the event we studied the things Indian youth really are passionate and excited about and transposed them into a sanitation and hygiene context”.

Kiefer has been successful as 16-18 year old boys can be spotted at WaterAid India office learning about the utility and cost of various types of toilets. Shailesh and Brajesh, who work as Rozgaar Sahayak (assistant worker) under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, also learn about convergence in the scheme – using man power worth INR 4,500 for construction of toilets. “We have toilets in our houses but we want to see toilets in each house of our village”, says Shailesh. “The event has been designed with a new approach to sanitation and hygiene campaigning in India. It focuses on fun and positive messaging. Basically, the Yatra is re-inventing toilet talk”, says Nirat Bhatnagar of Quicksand.

The Yatra will culminate in Bettiah in Bihar on November 19 – the World Toilet Day. Similar Yatras are planned in the next four years to help India deal with its sanitation and hygiene crisis and remove the blot of being home to the largest number of people indulging in open defecation.

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