BY JUANITA KAKOTY
Open defecation is a major socio-cultural problem in India. Almost half of the population (about 595 million people) defecates in the open, contributing to severe health complications, especially in children. This is a problem which has caste, class and gender implications; and more than anything else, requires behavioral change. In an attempt to communicate this, as well as to showcase how through minimum resources innovations can provide solutions, the UNICEF organized its Activate Talk on “Innovations to support ending open defecation” on 18 December 2014 at Alliance Française, New Delhi. The Talk was moderated by writer and columnist Nalin Mehta and the panelists included Aruna Rajoria from the Government of Assam; Swami Chidanand Saraswati, co-founder of the Global Inter-Faith WASH Alliance; Anshul Tewari, founder of Youth ki Awaaz; and Sonal Kapoor, founder of Protsahan. David Mcloughlin, Deputy Representative, UNICEF India gave the opening remarks.
The Talk began with the screening of a short film on the UNICEF campaign that talks of taking ‘poo’ to the ‘loo’ (watch the video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_peUxE_BKcU). The ‘poo2loo’ campaign uses quirky, informative and humorous language to connect with young people on social media. It shows ‘poo’ touching everyone and reflects upon the kind of community one lives in. One can read more about this campaign at http://www.poo2loo.com/. In the opening remarks, a UNICEF representative emphasized the catastrophic situation that open defecation subjects disadvantaged children to and spoke of UNICEF’s role in seeking to create advocates who can speak against this practice. The next step, he said, is creating partnerships that would bring forth a social movement where everyone will see toilet use as a basic right.
Anshul Tewari, citing examples from Youth Ki Awaaz, exhorted the power of social media platforms in exercising pressure upon the government to translate its promises into reality on ground. Where traditional media generally ignores the youth’s voice, he said, social media can allow the youth to participate in important social debates. And in this regard, he raised the pertinent concern: Are we engaging the youth enough?
Sonal Kapoor, in her talk, suggested that the approach to tackling social problems is to devise ways whereby the people who are part of the problem become a part of the solution. She spoke of how at Protsahan they work with underprivileged children who have never been to school and make them the ones to create stories and tell stories before their communities as well as across communities. Sonal implored that serious issues need not have serious approaches. That approaches can be fun and innovative. Like how Protsahan uses design, art, digital stories, photography and cinema to foster creative education and sustainable livelihood amongst the underprivileged.
Swami Chindanand Saraswati is perhaps the only holy man who has elevated toilets to as important a status as temples. He spoke of his personal journey, how the sight of men and women easing themselves by the side of roads standing up every time a car passed by caused a shift in him and he began the ‘temple to toilet’ movement. “Let every Guru become a Green Guru,” he exhorted. Applauding such an effort, Nalin Mehta added, “Those who worship the creator need to now take care of creation.” UNICEF provides technical support to this movement and, prior to Swami Chidanand Saraswati’s talk, screened a short film about how Faith leaders have the power to guide followers to live clean, hygienic lives.
Aruna Rajoria spoke of a simple innovation in Assam to encourage children to wash their hands before mid-day meal in schools. They have installed a pipe with about 12-14 hand-washing points thereby turning a mundane school routine to a fun activity as children wash hands as a collective exercise. She said that such an installation in a school costs INR 10,000 and two soaps are donated to the school by each parent. This small habit has spearheaded a behavioral change and the government intends to scale up this operation from 100 schools at present to 10,000 schools in the coming year. Aruna also narrated an interesting story that shows how this exercise can also shape the perspective towards hygiene and sanitation in general. In one village in Assam, a father had almost turned the toilet into a temple because it was the most beautiful and grand building in his compound; and continued with open defecation. The little daughter, who has been a part of the hand-washing programme before mid-day meal in school, had prevented him from doing the same!
It was heartening to see a few school children in the audience besides representatives from various organizations. A few more representatives from the government in the audience would have been desirable considering the successful innovations that were being talked about. They need to be replicated at a wider scale, which can only happen with the support of the government.
The UNICEF Activate Talks are an advocacy tool that coincides with the 25th anniversary year of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It upholds the spirit of innovation and includes a series of dynamic events and seminars around the world with experts, innovators and thought-leaders.