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Let’s make toilets fashionable, says World Toilet Organisation founder Jack Sim

Recently in India to attend the World Toilet Summit, Sim called for a comprehensive behavioural change strategy to focus on transforming mindsets of people and also provide sustainable solutions for easy access.

Asha Ramachandran | New Delhi |

The problem of lack of toilets and open defecation is not limited to India. And each country has devised its own set of policies to tackle this problem. At a time when the Union government is laying stress on sanitation, it is imperative that all segments of society work together to achieve a 100 per cent ODF (open-defecation free) society. “Toilet is becoming a big subject,” said Jack Sim, founder of World Toilet Organisation (WTO), Singapore. “In India it has become very important and is now a very marketable subject.” Recently in India to attend the World Toilet Summit, Sim called for a comprehensive behavioural change strategy to focus on transforming mindsets of people and also provide sustainable solutions for easy access. Sim noted in an interview with ASHA RAMACHANDRAN that 92 million people world-wide still defecate in the open and termed safe sanitation a fundamental human right.


Q: Despite the huge campaign against open defecation (ODF), its eradication still appears to be an uphill task. What are the gaps?

A: I think the habit of not using toilets, going outside, has been a cultural norm. That means people go outside because they gather to chit-chat and gossip. To deprive them of this, we have to replace it with another opportunity to socialise. At the same time we have to make toilets fashionable. How? For example, fashion, festivals and clothing (are when) people want to show off. So, if you make toilets as something to show off, then it will be adopted very fast. If the toilet becomes an object of desire, then things will change very fast. Bureaucrats are not fashion experts, they are very rational. But human beings are motivated by emotions like pride, jealousy, oneupmanship and fear of missing out. All these are market based.

Q: How does one tackle the cultural mindset, where people prefer open defecation?

A: We must create trendiness in toilets to make people have ownership. In the urban areas, public toilets, including in the offices, must be good. If the senior officer has a good toilet and the staff has to use dirty toilets, things don’t work. A number of school toilets I have visited were found locked up and children were defecating in the open. When I asked, I was told everybody in the village was using the toilets and so they had to be locked up. So, I think there are certain norms that can be created to promote using toilets. Also, a toilet is not just for homes but for a whole lot of places ~ transport centres, religious buildings, work places, schools, hostels and tourism sites. I think the fastest way to solve this problem has to be the market ~ make people want to buy, want to pay and advertise. People spend so much on rituals and celebrations. Why not build toilets? To change people’s mindsets, government programmes must shift from a supply-driven project to a demand-driven one. People will not just take government funds but put in their own money. This will create a differential quality between the one who has spent and one who has not. And then, due to comparisons, the market will move in. A poor person is not bothered about rich people looking down on him but is very afraid of neighbours looking down on him. Looking at past experience, first of all, there was corruption. Then there is bureaucracy. India is tackling this challenge through Swachh Bharat Mission. By 2 October 2019, India aims to be 100 per cent ODF and will spend the next 10 years to ensure ODF remains ODF. This means government will also facilitate the behavioural change, training, maintenance and employing the business model that follows the hardware and software.

Q: How do we take technology to people, particularly in rural areas?

A: I think engineers are present in all the locations and they are trained. But the engineer has to be interested. He understands technology, he has the engineering knowledge. But he must also be empowered to be interested. Otherwise he will just follow instructions instead of diligently applying the appropriate technology. Then there is the economic value ~ at what price they can choose the best model, whether people can afford it and the subsidy offered. But if you are in a rush, you don’t have time to answer these questions because it is not just knowledge but also the heart that is involved.

Q: While funding remains an issue, proper utilisation is a bigger challenge. Your comments.

A: In the past, government just gave the money and asked people to construct a toilet. But that didn’t work out. So now people are asked to build and claim for it which means people have to borrow some money quickly. But there are several programmes, including microfinance, through which one can borrow for a short period at low interest. But people need to trust that the government will give the money very quickly. I think those are the practices. I don’t know how perfect they are but in principle, there must be a fast track.

Q: Would you say sanitation should also be treated on a case-by-case basis? In other words, one solution fits all does not work.

A: Yes. For instance, the twin-pit model might be good for some places but dangerous wherever the water table is very high with chances of leaching into well water and contaminating it. So, we should modify. Perhaps we could use space hyper-spectra cameras to map out the underground water system and then feed this data into an Artificial Intelligence (AI) system , then you will be able to decide on what model to use where (twin-pit, septic tank, bio-gas or dry toilet). Also, there has to be climate input ~ whether it is frozen at certain times of the year or it is too hot for vermincomposting. Then you have to map the demography and think how to finance the relevant models. At the present juncture, we are in a rush to build toilets. There will be some collateral damage. But at least something has been done. So, the answer is to do it.

Q: In this context, how does one tackle the policy-makers?

A: The policy-maker actually has a consultant. But I don’t see the right advice coming from them. I think the local people, the local village and local engineers should be the one advising, like which is the right technology to use. And so, do not make it a topdown recommendation. I think the local people know the answers and the problem better than the Central government.