‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’ is what we learned in school. We were taught to follow a strict cleanliness regime. But cleanliness or maintaining good sanitation habits is not a virtue to be nurtured only during childhood, it should be an integral tenet to societal progress. Countries that invest in infrastructure and facilities that enable health and hygiene of their citizens tend to make more economic progress than others.
India is surging ahead in its journey to become the next economic superpower of the world. While we do so, one needs to draw attention to sanitation facilities and the awareness of hygiene habits, which can contribute to the Human Development Index. Health indicators suggest that India has the world’s highest number of child deaths due to diarrhoea and pneumonia. Approximately, 792 million Indians live without improved sanitation, of which, some 597 million continue to defecate in the open.
The scale and complexity of the problems that we face require all stakeholders to contribute, including the corporates. This is where Swachh Bharat Abhiyan becomes a timely initiative to enable the elimination of hygiene and sanitation challenges facing India. The campaign has encouraged citizens to be vigilant, spread the word on importance of cleanliness and maintain it in public and private spaces. In one year, progress has been made by improving infrastructure and increasing accessibility to toilets.
But that is not enough because change also needs to take place in people’s minds. For that, we need a holistic approach focused on driving behavioural change to address challenges related to drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). This, in my view, is a sustainable way to address the mission of Swachh Bharat.
There are some questions that need to be addressed: Does every house has a toilet? Are households using the toilets? Do they have access to safe drinking water? Do people use soap or disinfectants?
Let’s take the case of washing hands. While it’s acknowledged that washing hands before and after defecation is a good hygiene practice, the usage of soap on these occasions is low. Hand washing rates among mothers across India are low and the rates are even lower for children.
To solve the problem of sanitation facilities, investing in low-cost, environment-friendly and innovative interventions could be a strategic step. For instance, installing make-shift public toilets for both men and women in cities and rural areas, discouraging villagers to defecate in public by encouraging them to construct toilets inside or closer to their home are models that can be explored. However, creating sanitation facilities without spreading awareness and necessity of its usage, will prove to be futile. Hence, sustainable infrastructure and behavioural change campaign must go hand in hand.
Another aspect that needs attention is the availability of safe drinking water. It is estimated that 97 million Indians do not have access to an improved source of drinking water. Along with installing simple, low-cost purification devices at home, educating people on appropriate ways of water purification will help.
For several years, Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) has developed and implemented several WASH behaviour change programmes in India. These initiatives have touched the lives of 121 million Indians so far. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has given us an opportunity to strengthen our efforts in WASH. In our ‘Swachh Aadat, Swachh Bharat’ programme the attempt is to promote awareness and adoption of swachh aadat (clean habits) — washing hands five times a day, using a toilet for defecation and adopting safe drinking water practices. We are taking this message to millions by engaging with communities and children to advocate for good hygiene habits. A ‘Swachh Bharat’ can be achieved through swachh aadat and we all can play a role to make this possible.
Sanjiv Mehta is CEO and MD, Hindustan Unilever Ltd
The views expressed are personal