Sunday, September 30, 2012
Vidya Balan and Jairam Ramesh Team Up For Toilets
A traveling village fair is scheduled to kick off next week in India, but instead of cotton candy and tchotchkes, it will sell an important message: Use soap to wash your hands, and don’t defecate in the open.
India faces a severe sanitation crisis. More than half of all households have no toilet facilities, according to the latest census figures, a rate that has worsened in the last decade. Earlier this year, the government announced an ambitious goal to end open defecation in the country within 10 years. But it was only on Friday afternoon that the campaign got a bit of glamour: Vidya Balan, a popular actress, was introduced as something of a brand ambassador, to promote the distinctly unglamorous issues of sanitation and hygiene.
“We have to inspire more and more people to make our country open-defecation-free,” she said, sparkling under the flash of cameras in the capital.
Starting next week, Ms. Balan will appear in radio and television advertisements in which she cajoles villagers to use toilets. In one ad, she notes that brides in India are too shy to lift their veils, much less to defecate in the open.
Ms. Balan said she was drawn to the cause after reading the statistics on sanitation. Advocacy groups say that open defecation has led to the deaths of more than 1,000 children from preventable diarrhea every day. It is also said to have caused a loss of 6.4 percent of G.D.P., due to higher health costs and lower productivity.
India has struggled with sanitation for decades. Critics of government policy contend that people decline to buy toilets not due to their price but because the government fails to supply running water.
Jairam Ramesh, the minister for sanitation and rural development, whose strategy has included raising awareness and pouring funds into village councils if they meet their toilet targets, acknowledged to India Ink on email that running water is a problem but said it wasn’t the primary one.
“In India people always like to externalise the reasons for inaction,” he said. ”Behavioral change is of paramount importance.”
At the news conference Friday where Ms. Balan appeared, Mr. Ramesh said that for the next five years, his ministry of clean water and sanitation would have a budget of about $20 billion. “There’s no shortage of funds,” he said. “If there’s a shortage, it’s of resolve.”
The traveling village fair – whose purpose, besides encouraging good hygiene, is to increase awareness and demand for sanitation facilities in rural areas – is being promoted and facilitated by Mr. Ramesh’s ministry, but its funding comes from a host of organizations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which together raised a little more than $2 million for it.
The concept for the fair was developed by Quicksand, an Indian consultancy, and WASH United, a nongovernment organization that often uses sports stars as ambassadors to promote hygiene.
Organizers said they would use two Indian passions, cricket and Bollywood, to generate excitement about the awareness drive, with stars from both fields to join the fair. They will also use more standard village fair diversions, like a game in which players knock down cans that look like germs.
Ms. Balan promised to make an appearance during the fair, which is scheduled to travel through five states over 51 days. Called the Nirmal Bharat Yatra, which loosely translates as “Clean India Journey,” the fair will stop at a couple of places associated with in India’s independence movement to make the point that India now needs to become free from poor sanitation.
The last stop will be Bettiah in the state of Bihar, the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha, his tactic of nonviolent resistance. It’s a fitting end. Gandhi himself often stressed the importance of sanitation.