5 November 2014

Open defecation: where's the Ad campaign to change attitudes?

Yesterday I had to commute 10kms for an errand. Decided to take the scooter. For a decent stretch of the way I took a road that doesn't have much use (due to a policy bungle, one end finishes unceremoniously at the campus wall!). The road is a pleasure: wide, asphalted, little traffic, bougainvilleas spilling with colour in the median, and few speed bumps. In this joy, ever so often my senses picked up a smell: that of freshly laid human poop. It came and went. Then, around a bend I spotted kids, squatting on the pedestrian path. Some single, some in groups. All outside with a can of water, in the act of contributing to the rich morning aroma.

This is Bangalore - IT capital of India. Urban India. Why are children openly defecating here? These children were not from migrant families. This road was lined with tin-roofed, brick structures. No tents that I could see!

The Prime Minister is often quoted for saying "Build toilets, not temples." Swach Bharat campaign is splashed in the media. Numerous schemes are announced for building toilets. Villages that have ended open defecation get an award. Yet, not one message tells you why open defecation is bad. That it is not just about cleanliness or women's security or making rural India more developed. It is about preventing the spread of diseases. It doesn't matter if you stop this habit, it also matters that your neighbourhood stops. That this is a community problem.

Taking a poop outside is a cultural habit. From one perspective, you could argue that it is actually hygienic, since it is away from the house. But no ads talk about the other end of the problem. That this faecal matter enters streams and rivers, and becomes the faeco-oral route of transmission that is responsible for spreading Polio, Dysentery etc., things that lead to children being the ultimate victims. And, importantly, that this disease affliction can impede them for life.

How can dysentery affect children for life? Consider that majority of the brain develops in the first two years of life. The hungry brain demands both macro and micronutrients. If you have dysentery then your intestines are not doing their job of absorbing nutrition from the food you consume. So, outwardly, besides some weight loss you don't notice a difference. But inside, as those neurons link up to form synapses, and various parts of brain learn to talk to each other there is a deficit, which later can manifest as poor cognitive skills and behavioural issues.

How can policy makers change attitudes simply by asking you to refrain from doing something, if you are not convinced about the value of making that attitude change? And we are talking adults here. Adults who have been doing this for years and believe that following your forefathers to the tee, is an "indian value". The campaign right now is: Take a dump in the hole, because of I love my desh. Is that really inspiring? If political parties can come up with jingles and story lines to capture our hearts with their mandate or leader, why can't the same advertising firms be used to come up a campaign to educate, rather than instruct?