A convoy of trucks travel to five States to spread the word on sanitation and hygiene.

Six decades after Independence, India has embarked on a long-pending journey — to make sanitation a ‘national obsession’, after cricket and Bollywood.

After all, 626 million people in this fast-modernising country still defecate in the open, exposing themselves to disease, snakebite and other dangers outdoors. The most vulnerable are the elderly, women and girls, who not only have to wait till dark to go to the fields but also face the threat of sexual assault. What’s more, the despicable practice of manual scavenging persists even today.

Even as the Government intensifies its Total Sanitation Campaign, launched in 1999, to end open defecation by 2020, innovative ideas are pouring in. One such idea is to reinvent ‘toilet talk’ in India, with actor Vidya Balan as a brand ambassador for the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan. At the launch of the Nirmal Bharat Yatra in Delhi recently, Vidya said, “We are so far removed from the reality in rural India. We feel if something doesn’t affect our lives, why should we do something about it. But I strongly felt I should be associated with this issue.”

Conceptualised by Quicksand Design Studio and WASH United, the yatra — a carnival-like convoy of 40 brightly painted trucks and a 500-strong crew — set off on October 2 from Wardha in Maharashtra. It will pass through five States, covering 2,000 km in 51 days. After travelling to Indore in Madhya Pradesh, Kota in Rajasthan, Gwalior in MP, Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, it will end on November 19 at Bettiah in Bihar, where Mahatma Gandhi began his first Satyagraha.

The awareness-cum-entertainment programme includes games, films, and live dance and magic performances, says Neeraj Bhatnagar of Quicksand Design Studio. An interesting feature is the ‘Tippy-Tap’, described as a soap lab for hand-washing.

“An Indian Idol kind of hand-washing dance along with hand-washing carrom boards will make it fun for participating schoolchildren,” he adds.

Promising to rope in more celebrities, such as cricketers, Thorsten Kiefer, Executive Director of WASH United, says, “What we are trying to do is to make toilet use and hygiene cool and sexy.”

Organised on a budget of about Rs 12 crore, the yatra is supported by Minister of Rural Drinking Water and Sanitation Jairam Ramesh and various non-governmental organisations and corporates. These include Reckitt Benkiser, which makes Dettol, and Unilever, manufacturer of Harpic, the Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operations, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, GIZ, Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, Arghyam, Wateraid, Unicef, WEawag and Goonj.

‘Dirty Picture’

Vidya Balan’s help has been sought to clean up India’s ‘Dirty Picture’ and make the country free from open defecation, said Ramesh during the yatra’s launch.

The actor features in three ad spots filmed for the Total Sanitation Campaign. One of them shows a village bride, covered under a waist-length veil, fussed over by the women at her marital home. Amid the giggles, she whispers to her educated friend (played by Vidya) that she wants to relieve herself. Vidya unabashedly asks the mother-in-law where the toilet is. To her shock, she is told that there is none! “You want the bride to be veiled all the time, but have no problems about her relieving herself in the open?” says Vidya. The ad spot ends with a call for a change in mindset to ensure that every house has a toilet.

When the Minister suggested that someone like Shyam Benegal should make a film similar to Manthan (on the Gujarat milk cooperative movement) on the issue of sanitation, Vidya said she was open to acting in any such film. “Around 60 per cent of all open defecation in the world is taking place in India… Approximately 400,000-500,000 children below five years die due to diarrhoea annually in India,” Ramesh said, painting a grim picture.

Menstrual hygiene

Most importantly, the yatra is taking special care to broach a topic that is taboo in most Indian households — menstrual hygiene, which is closely related to availability of toilets and water.

In India, over 300 million women and girls use unsanitary material such as old rags, husks, dried leaves and grass, ash, sand or newspaper during menstruation. “Such unhygienic material exposes them to health hazards such as urinary tract infections,” says Archana Patkar of the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council.

(This article was published on October 11, 2012)
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