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Sanitary tale

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

At the  18th World Toilet Summit in Mumbai,  Ronita Torcato meets Jack Sim, Time magazine's hero of the environment

In 2013, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the ‘Sanitation for All’ Resolution designating November 19 as UN World Toilet Day. Each year, World Toilet Organization (WTO), organised by a dynamic Singaporean called Jack Sim, commemorates this day with the Global Urgent Run which aims to bring communities around the world together to raise awareness for the global sanitation challenge and engage people with sanitation issues in their local communities.

Actually, Jack Sim's efforts to sensitise people (and governments) about sanitation precedes the UN endeavour. He organised the first World Toilet Summit on November 19, 2001, at a  time when toilets and sanitation remained low on the global agenda. His native Singapore was the venue and he has organised, with the help of partners,  15 World Toilet Summits around the world since then in over 12 countries (14 cities) so far.  Sim's WTO has been part of several advocacy and awareness initiatives with the World Toilet Summit being a key element.

India  has hosted the Summit twice, in 2007 and 2015.  In its 18th year, the Summit took place in Mumbai, with support from the Government’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission), which  aims to achieve the ‘open defecation free status’ (ODS) by next year! The theme of the WTS 2018 was: Can the world be ODF by 2030?

The Mumbai Summit was attended by more than 300 global and Indian experts in the field of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) as well as  delegates from leading corporate houses, Government agencies,  Urban Local Bodies, and NGOs.

Over two days (November 19-20) delegates attended panel discussions and participated in interactive sessions with keynote speakers and exhibitors.

These included, among several others, sizeable delegations from LIXIL and RB, UK, Gary White  of Water.org, Parameswaran Iyer, Secretary, Swachh Bharat Mission, Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation,  Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswati, President, Parmarth Niketan Ashram, Madhusudan Lohia, Director at Merino Industries Ltd, which has built toilets in  dozens of airports, IITs and near the world's tallest statue honouring the 'Iron Man of India', Sardar Vallabhai Patel;   Dr. Dayanand Panse- Director, Ecosan Services Foundation, Naina Lal Kidwai, Chair, India Sanitation Coalition, Nicolas Osbert - Chief, WASH, UNICEF India,  Georg Jahnsen, Project Manager, Sustainable Urban Development in Smart Cities, and SLK Foundation's Pankaj Narayan Pandit who was promoting a dry toilet pan that he said separates urine, excreta and water at source as "ideal technology in water-starved rural India”.  (Sim has created a social enterprise that makes cheap toilets using an open source design at a cost of around $32 each.) Interestingly, six heads of different religious faiths held forth in a session curated by the Global Interfaith Wash Alliance.

"When I think of the way we were, Singapore wasn't always the way it is now," said Sim, speaking to this correspondent in Mumbai, during a break on the second day of the  WTS. "Singapore was a poor country. In 1965, its GDP was the same as Kenya. Homes were thatched with mud floors for the poor; the well-off had tiles… Billions in the world have no access to proper sanitation. Policy makers and planners lacked proper education, expertise and platforms to  improve conditions."

Improving  the state of toilets  and sanitation conditions  globally  is a neglected agenda. Making India ODF is not just about constructing toilets, it's also about treating sewage," says the man who became a very successful businessman  in his 40s, and changed track  after he discovered that toilets were often neglected and talking about them was taboo!

"India has the biggest sanitation crisis in the world with a big population which has been neglected for the longest time. when I first came to India in 1986 I was shocked to see garbage next to five-star hotels. I'm sorry  not much has changed today. In most countries, there is some control mechanism. If you can't clean up a gentrified section in the city centre, what about the suburbs and rural areas?" He recalls going to government offices and seeing "double standards. The officers had clean private toilets, but the staff had the most horrible loos. How can they have a vision of cleanliness for everyone?"

In  2001, Jack founded the World Toilet Organization (WTO) and four years later, the World Toilet College (WTC) in 2005. His CV is most impressive but one can't list all his achievements. In 2007, he helped convene the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA) comprising 130 organisations active in the sanitation sector. Jack is  an Ashoka Global Fellow and in 2008 was named Hero of the Environment by Time Magazine. Sim also sits in the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Councils (GAC) for Water Security and  for Social Entrepreneurship.

He has managed to rope in Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, actors Matt Damon and Vidya Balan to advocate the cause. JAY Z and  COLDPLAY performed on World Toilet Day 2016 when 80,000 lucky people were given free tickets.

In 2011, World Toilet Organization established its SaniShop  model in India to increase access of rural households to safe and affordable sanitation, in partnership with eKutir and Sattva, social businesses based out of Odisha and Bengaluru. eKutir has been able to establish 25 micro-entrepreneurs working for the sanitation cause in three different states of India.  On July 24, 2013, WTO achieved a key milestone for the global sanitation movement when 122 countries co-sponsored a UN resolution tabled by the Singapore government to designate November 19, World Toilet Day as an official UN day. World Toilet Organization was granted consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council in 2013.

"Behavioural change is important," says Sim. "Not littering, not dumping waste outside the home is important. Civic sense must be inculcated. Sanitation cannot be supply-driven. It must be demand-driven by capacity building and the desire to create a sustainable eco-system including treatment of human waste which contaminates rivers and water bodies, among other things."

"We need to make toilets fashionable. People are not afraid the rich look down on them but they are terrified of their neighbours. There should be contests in rural areas for the most beautiful loos."

I express concern when he urges "using comparisons, jealousy and the need to keep up with the Joneses  which will create a natural demand for clean toilets". Why trade on negative emotions, I ask. His response is simple: "If it works, it's good. If it doesn't, it's not good."

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