Re-inventing toilet talk in India with cricket and Bollywood

Re-inventing toilet talk in India with cricket and Bollywood

Bollywood superstar Vidya Balan bowls for better sanitation and hygiene in India. Click for more photos.India is the reigning World Cricket Champion. But with 626 million Indians using fields, vacant lots or railroad tracks as their toilet, India is also the world’s open defecation capital, resulting in more than 1,000 children dying from preventable diarrhea each day – another world record. A major new campaign, the Nirmal Bharat Yatra (NBY), is embarking to cut these numbers significantly. Announced 28 September, the Yatra has the support of high-ranking public officials, cricket stars, a Bollywood celebritry, and leading development professionals for the six-week long campaign. 

The Nirmal Bharat Yatra is the brainchild of WASH United and Quicksand Design Studio. From 3 October until 19 November – World Toilet Day – the NBY will travel 2,000 km through villages from Maharashtra to Bihar. It is not a normal mela; rather it is according to Thorsten Kiefer, Executive Director of WASH United, “a toilet and hygiene mela that harnesses the passion for cricket, the glamour of Bollywood, the fun of interactive games towards creating a masala of positive excitement around the long-neglected issues of sanitation and hygiene across India.”

The press launch for the Yatra at the India Habitat Centre occurred in New Delhi on 28 September. It showcased top political commitment in the persons of the Honorable Minister for Drinking Water and Sanitation, Mr. Jairam Ramesh, and Secretary Drinking Water and Sanitation, Mr. Pankaj Jain. As well, Bollywood star Ms. Vidya Balan; Philanthropist and Founder of Arghyam, Ms. Rohini Nilekani, and numerous Yatra partners showed their dedication.

“India has a godliness surplus and cleanliness deficit,” said Minister Ramesh. “The Government of India has tripled its allocation to sanitation and hygiene, so money is not the issue, since we will spend 1lakh 7000 crores on sanitation and hygiene. What we need is for everyone to take on sanitation and hygiene with a sense of urgency and make it a national obsession. For this, we are happy to welcome on board Vidya Balan as our ambassador and messenger. In India, Bollywood, cricket and the Government are omnipresent and known by all. We must use these to change the situation positively.” He applauded the Yatra and its ambition and said that he would travel to each of the stops as an indication of his support.  

Ms. Balan said that she was proud and honoured to be the messenger of the Government of India for the cause of bringing about a clean India. “After all, celebrities such as I can use our position and presence for a social cause to make a real difference in the lives of people in this country. I have chosen sanitation.”
“We have looked at the things Indians really are passionate and excited about and transposed them into a sanitation and hygiene context,” said Kiefer, “What we are trying to do with the Yatra is to make toilets and hygiene cool and sexy.” More specifically, he said, the NBY raises awareness of and facilitates behavior change around sanitation and handwashing with soap. 

Nirat Bhatnagar, principal at Quicksand, adds that “the Yatra represents a totally new approach to sanitation and hygiene campaigning in India in that it fully focuses on fun, positive messaging and super star role models. Basically, the Yatra is re-inventing toilet talk!” 

Reflecting the great need to address India’s massive sanitation and hygiene crisis, the Yatra will see a high degree of involvement from the Minister of Drinking Water & Sanitation, Hon. Jairam Ramesh, and the Chief Ministers of several states. The Yatra works in close collaboration with the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA), a government subsidization and awareness program that makes toilets affordable for poor and marginalized Indians. The Yatra’s key messages pertaining to toilet use, handwashing with soap and Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) will supplement the NBA’s emphasis on prioritizing household spending on sanitation. 

In addition, the Yatra will enjoy the support of some of India’s biggest cricket heroes, as well as major Bollywood stars. 

Nirat Bhatnagar says: “Cricket stars and Bollywood actors are among the most powerful role models in India. The Yatra is a unique opportunity for celebrities to use their fame to help tackle one of the most pertinent social issues of our country in a fun and positive fashion. We invite everybody to come on board and help us build a popular movement for sanitation and hygiene in India.” 

The NBY starts immediately after Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary, 3 October, from Wardha, Maharashtra, and culminates almost 50 days later in Bettiah, Bihar. The NBY will be the first in a series of Yatras that WASH United and Quicksand are planning over the next four years to help end India’s sanitation and hygiene crisis. 

The Yatra carries the following goals: 

  • Reach at least 90 million people with sanitation messaging through local, regional, national and international media, at least 82.5 million of whom live in India. • 100,000 total attendees at the carnival event in the towns and villages. 
  • 30,000 children trained in appropriate hand-washing and sanitation behaviour at schools using fun and innovative sports-based games. 
  • 200 teachers and 1,500 pupils trained to continue the WASH United educational program after the event’s conclusion. 
  • More awareness of Menstrual Hygiene Management. Long a topic surrounded by silence, it is now recognized as vital in achieving equity and dignity for women and will be accorded the space it deserves at the event.

By tackling Menstrual Hygiene Management, the NBY also tackles an issue facing persisting taboos in India. More than 300 million women and girls in India use unsanitary material such as old rags, husks, dried leaves and grass, ash, sand or newspapers every month to try and contain the flow of menstrual blood, says Ms. Archana Patkar, Programme Manager at the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, a Yatra partner. These unhygienic measures during menstruation make women susceptible to infections and diseases pertaining to the urinary tract and reproductive system, reduce mobility and livelihood opportunities. 

“Whilst global efforts on sanitation and hygiene have picked up momentum, women’s particular needs in sanitation continue to be forgotten or simply ignored,” Patkar says. “But women are the progenitors of the human race. Menstruation is therefore something of which they can and should be proud, so each and every one of us should work to improve the lives and life chances for women who do not have access to napkins and clean water and toilets with safe disposal facilities; who cannot talk about their experiences; or are not empowered to contribute towards a solution.”

The economic and human costs of poor sanitation and hygiene in India 
Lack of adequate sanitation is a huge problem in India, which loses approximately USD $53.8 billion (>6.4% of its GDP) due to increased health costs, productivity losses and reduced tourism revenue due to inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene (Water and Sanitation Program of the World Bank, February 2011). In total, some 626 million Indians defecate in the open, making India the country with most people living without toilets in the world. This leads to severe problems spanning health, economics, human rights and the environment (UNICEF/WHO). According to the Public Health Association, only 53 per cent of the Indian population wash hands with soap after defecation, 38 per cent wash hands with soap before eating and only 30 per cent wash hands with soap before preparing food (UNICEF).

WASH United is an international water, sanitation and hygiene advocacy organization that has pioneered new approaches using the power of sports super stars, interactive games and positive communication to promote safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), working with dozens of partners in Africa and now also in India. 
Quicksand is an India-based innovation firm with significant background in the field of WASH innovation, having worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), PATH, Unilever, and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine among others. 

Key partners of the Yatra include the Ministry of Drinking Water & Sanitation (Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan), the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), WaterAid, Arghyam/Hindi Water Portal, Goonj, UNICEF, FANSA, and EAWAG. 

3 responses to “Re-inventing toilet talk in India with cricket and Bollywood

  1. Nripendra Kumar Sarma, Guwahati, Assam, India

    Dear Bidya Balan,
    It is really GREAT that YOU have taken the lead role as India’s Sanitation Brand Ambassador.

    However, at this moment of time, my humble request to YOU, is to lead the initiative to create the Social Commitment on use and practice of safe sanitation habits. May I request YOU to spare 4-5 days every month to visit at least one cluster of villages in all the states of India, one by one as our Sanitation Brand Ambassador to create that Social Commitment ( I am not sure how far it will be practicable )? I hope, your role does not end up merely as an Advertisement assignment, unlike in case of others for whom YOU ( may be ) and different celebraties are doing.

    Anyway, such an approach may definitely pave the way for the CHANGES, what YOU and we want to see ……. .
    Thanking YOU.
    With Regards.
    Nripendra Kumar Sarma
    Guwahati, Assam, India

  2. Nripendra Kumar Sarma, Guwahati, Assam, India

    Dear All,
    The importance of NBY should truely be felt at all level including the policy makers to implementation stakeholders to create grass root level awareness and demand for safe sanitation and that too in a sustained manner. It is really doable although challenging. But, in our state, what I feel is the need of a whole hearted approach but not merely as a Programme Activity. The main challenge is for an all out approach from all implementation stakeholders and also to change the most negative view … “Sanitation is Not My Cup of Tea”…. .
    Commitments at all levels is a Great Need of the hour.
    Nripendra Kumar Sarma
    Guwahati, Assam, India

  3. Dear All
    It’s great move although let wait till we find if it succeed or fall the way other projects have fallen…. all the money is used to heat up some pocket while our people still defecate in open.

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