By most standards, I had a privileged upbringing in Australia in the 1960s and 70s, which included high-quality education and family holidays, including trips to Europe, North America, the South Pacific and, of course, around Australia. It was also a very sheltered life.
In the late 1980s, after leaving my parents’ home, I became a little more adventurous, visiting developing countries in southeast Asia and Latin America. This was where I first saw what absolute poverty and disadvantage looked like.
I first visited India in the late 1990s. According to UNICEF, as recently as 2008, around 50% of the Indian population was still practising open defecation, with most of these doing so because they did not have an alternative. In 2014, the Modi government launched Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. The dream was to achieve an open defecation-free India by 2019. While the dream was not fulfilled, we can all agree that the reduction in open defecation in India during those years was truly extraordinary. During my travels, I have seen people defecating in the open while looking out of the window of a train or a car. But I had never considered the devastating implications of these behaviours.
This changed for me during a business visit to India in early 2012. I had joined the board of an Australian-Indian joint venture a couple of years earlier and had started visiting India for meetings four or five times a year. I had completely fallen in love with this beautiful country. I would step further outside my comfort zone with each visit.
Dharavi: A Turning Point
During this particular visit in 2012, I met two young men on a train in Mumbai. We spoke briefly about cricket – the great leveller for Indians and Australians. They were both students at the University of Mumbai and lived in Dharavi. They invited me to visit. I freely admit that I was pretty nervous about the idea. Slums would not generally be considered safe places for foreigners. And yet, I was intrigued. I decided to trust them and accept their invitation.
This became one of my life’s most significant life-changing decisions. My new friends, Fahim and Tauseef, led me through the mesmerising alleyways of Dharavi. We visited people’s homes and shops, factories and public squares, and finally, a school. As I looked around, I saw little boys and girls and teenage boys as well. But there were no adolescent girls. When I asked where they were, I heard they had all dropped out of school because there were no toilets.
I was confused: What did toilets have to do with teenage girls dropping out of school? There were no toilets in the school; what did that even mean?
I wanted to know more about this issue. I returned to my apartment and began searching online. I learned of girls and women raped late at night or early in the morning as they searched for somewhere quiet and secluded to go to the toilet. I learned that 600 million Indians were forced to defecate in the open every day because they had no alternative, that there were homes and businesses without toilets, and that community toilets were often in a horrendous state of disrepair to the point of being unusable. I learned that 90% of the surface water in India was contaminated with human faeces. I discovered that girls were dropping out of school en masse across India and the rest of the developing world simply because their schools had no toilets. And so many others were missing school when they had their periods because there was no way for them to deal with their personal needs at school.
For tens of millions of girls in the developing world, for the teenage girls who were not in the school in Dharavi, the onset of puberty can represent a brick wall, a line in the sand marking the end of a girl’s school-based education.
Around two years after visiting Dharavi, a business colleague in Nasik introduced me to Rotary International. Firdaus Kapadia was a member of the Rotary Club of Nasik Road. He told me that his club had a relationship with a school of 500 children with no toilets. On his recommendation, I attended a meeting of Rotary Club back in Australia as a guest speaker. The members were shocked by the story that I told them. Not long afterwards, I joined the Rotary Club of Box Hill Central in Australia. We immediately started planning a project to build 15 toilets in the school in Nasik in partnership with the Rotary Club of Nasik Road.
The project was completed in March 2015. On the day of the unveiling, I believed that I might now return to my old life. The school’s headmaster called three days later to tell me about a problem. The boys at the school were complaining because the queue for drinking water had become longer. Why? Because the girls had started drinking water during the day.
International development work is complicated and uncertain. Often, when a project is finished, the people involved wait for years before they see any tangible outcomes. And yet, here we were, seeing dramatic and measurable impact within three days of completion. We quickly started developing more projects around India and beyond. In the eight years since that first project reached 500 children, we have directly impacted the lives of close to 200,000 children. Indirectly, more than a million lives have changed for the better.
The Ripple Effect
The timing of the Swachh Bharat programme was perfect. It came when India and her people were ready for this transformation. While the Indian government and local and international NGOs will always have a role to play in lifting the standard and quality of life in India, large corporates must lead in this drive.
Reckitt has been an influential proponent of corporate social responsibility. They and others like them have recognised that by helping the most disadvantaged people, they are also helping their businesses. Beneficiaries of these efforts become loyal customers as their economic condition improves. Shareholders benefit from increased market share. Everyone is a winner.
As far as I am concerned, I am known in many schools around India as the Toilet Warrior. A big part of my heart is now permanently in India, and my life is totally and wonderfully in the toilet.
Mark Balla is a toilet warrior based in Australia.