India’s first poo song has hit the web, and it even boasts an animated fecal mascot. His name is Mr. Poo and he has become the face of UNICEF’s Poo2Loo public health campaign targeting open-defecation in India.
One video, Poo2Loo: Pool Party, begins with a man waking up and singing, ”First thing in the morning, what do I see? A pile of shit staring at me.”
The man then travels through the course of his day followed by a crew of synchronized dancing turds addressing the inescapable issue of stumbling across human excrement while out and about in India — a country where more than 620 million people regularly defecate in the open.
Poo2Loo is a social media campaign that was launched by UNICEF in January with the goal of increasing public awareness about the negative health effects of public defecation. It includes pages on Facebook and Twitter, and more YouTube videos. Another component of the campaign is a video game, Toilet Trek, in which players try to find a toilet.
“We are trying to really call those who can’t have a voice and can’t really help in decision-making at the highest level,” Genevieve Begkoyian, UNICEF’s Chief of Health in India, told VICE News.
Both the comedic approach and the liberal use of the word shit are bold for a United Nation’s program, but the subject of the campaign is a serious issue in India.
Currently, only about half of the country’s population uses toilets when nature calls. Public defecation and improper diaper disposal are common problems, both of which can increase the risk of water contamination. One of the larger concerns is that bacterial contamination of water can cause diarrhea, which is especially dangerous for children, who become more vulnerable to malnutrition and infections.
These problems are heightened in rural areas where access to public toilets is much lower than in the cities. UNICEF statistics show sanitation in rural India is improving, but open-defecation is essentially universal for the poorest 20 percent of the country’s population.
Begkoyian said the goal of the campaign is to encourage people — particularly adolescents and community leaders — to push for change by taking action in their communities.
“It’s a matter of dignity and a matter of empowerment of the people,” Begkoyian said.
Poo2Loo also supports public education programs and has partnered with the government to implement change.
“This kind of continued education is really important to get the message across,” Elynn Walter, Sustainability Director of WASH Advocates, a US-based global initiative promoting safe water, sanitation, and hygiene, told VICE News. “All of a sudden they're aware of the impacts of defecating out in the open.”
Walter said that these types of programs can help increase demand for proper sanitation by improving the public’s general understanding of the options and best practices. Though people might be aware that defecating in the open is a problem, they might not understand specifically how. — for example, how the water supply can be contaminated. Likewise, people inexperienced with toilets must learn proper maintenance procedures, or else they’ll be likely to make mistakes that render bathroom facilities unsanitary or altogether unusable.
Beyond health problems, Walter said, another important aspect to educate people about is the economic impact poor sanitation can have on India. A Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) study from 2010 found that in India the lack of adequate sanitation cost the nation $53.8 billion annualy.
UNICEF hopes India can follow the examples set by neighboring countries like Bangladesh and Nepal. In 2000, Bangladesh implemented a community-led total sanitation approach (CLTS) that engaged community members and village leaders. The government reached its goal of 100 percent sanitation in 2010, five years ahead of schedule. In 2005, Nepal followed suit and launched programs that have dramatically improved sanitation there — especially in schools.
Begkoyian says the Indian government has taken on the main role in solving the problem. The Union Minister for Rural Development, Jairam Ramesh, said in the beginning of April that India would continue to increase investment in rural sanitation, according to the Indian Express.
“In the past five years, we have spent more than [$74 million] on rural sanitation and will spend [$16.5 billion] in the next five years to make India an open-defecation-free country," said Ramesh during a traveling campaign to raise awareness about sanitation issues.
Another important improvement in the handling of sanitation in India occurred at the end of March when the Supreme Court ruled that “manual scavenging” — removing human waste from dry toilets, sewers, railways, and other locations by hand — violates the country’s constitutional protections for human rights. The practice was officially banned in 1993, but it is still widely practiced throughout India.
"Asking human beings to clean human waste is a violation of basic fundamental rights. This will shock the conscience of anyone," the court said about the case.
Both public and private entities employ manual scavengers, with the state-owned Indian Railways having the most employees in these jobs. In its ruling, the Supreme Court ordered Indian Railways to develop a strategy to end manual scavenging on the tracks.
Considered one of the lowest occupations, manual scavenger jobs have always been delegated to members of the Dalit sub-caste, also known as the “untouchables.” According to government census data, there were 750,000 manual scavengers as of 2011, but activists estimate that there are 1.3 million, most of whom are women.
“This is a victory of manual scavengers who have been fighting across the country for their liberation against the denial of central and various state governments repeatedly,” said Bezwada Wilson, a founder of the anti-scavenging movement Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), in a press release after the ruling.
SKA, which brought the case to court, was founded in 1995 to put an end to the practice of manual scavanging, while also offering rehabilitation for these workers. The petitioners claimed that the practice of manual scavenging in India continued “unabated” despite being illegal.
However, since the ruling, Wilson said he is not fully happy with the government's response.
“It’s kind of a joke,” Wilson told VICE News. “We have laws and systems, but what is the use if you’re not implementing them.”
Wilson said the government does not have a strategy for solving the problem. While the Supreme Court’s ruling was positive, he said it does not do enough to force implementation. After the national elections in India come to a close in May, SKA will start a public campaign to bring awareness to people about the ruling and the continued struggle of the manual scavengers.
While Wilson is waiting for the polls to close, the issue of sanitation has not been absent from the political campaigns and country-wide elections that began in April. For example, Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), even made the issue a campaign slogan of sorts, stressing that toilets and development in general were a priority over his party's traditional focus on building Hindu temples.
”I am known to be a Hindutva leader. My image does not permit me to say so, but I dare to say. My real thought is — ‘Pehle shauchalaya, phir devalaya' (Toilets first, temple later),” Modi said at an event for youth in New Delhi.
Image via YouTube