INTERVIEW Jon Lane, Executive Director of WSSCC, which hosted a global meet on sanitation and hygiene in Mumbai recently, talks to SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY about why we need better sanitation, now recognised a human right by United Nations

L ike it or not, this is still the reality: your experience of an overnight train journey in this country invariably includes early morning spotting of lines of men, women and children defecating in the open. We have been living with it for generations without sparing a thought on the ‘why' part of it, thereby tacitly accepting it as a component of a representative poor, rural scenario.

And today, India has the highest concentration of individuals lacking access to toilets, a reason why diseases like cholera still claim so many livesn out poor areas. The Government has in place the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) to address the issue. There have been some achievements of TSC definitely but considering 2012, the target year of reaching its aim of universal rural sanitation coverage, is next year, the total success of the campaign looks difficult to achieve. Herein, states Jon Lane, Executive Director of the UN entity, Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), comes the role of his organisation. WSSCC's Global Sanitation Fund is all set to help some of the States which are lagging behind in achieving the goal. As he says, “ it is to add value by complementing the already significant investment of the government to the sanitation and hygiene sector.”

In Mumbai to take part in the three-day Global Forum on Sanitation and Hygiene, organised by WSSCC, which ended on October 15, Lane takes out time to throw light on the issue and why we need better sanitation after all, now recognised a human right by U.N. Edited excerpts from the e-mail interview:

How successful was the global forum in Mumbai?

The conference was very successful. Nearly 500 people from 70 countries came. Issues that were discussed were on the software, not hardware. So issues were behaviour change, equity, leadership, sharing across regions of the world and so on. There were no specific resolutions or declarations as there are lots of those, including the ones from the recent South Asian Conference on Sanitation in Colombo. So this meeting was meant to be more practical.

Field visits have been organised as a part of the forum in the slums and rural areas of Maharashtra. What is to be drawn from it?

Well, the field visits are going on right now in the rural areas, and they are well attended and of great interest. The main thing is to learn from Indian colleagues who have shown that affordable, appropriate and sustainable sanitation and hygiene schemes are possible.

WSSCC has roped in actor Shah Rukh Khan as the ambassador for the cause. What exactly will be his role?

SRK will be a global ambassador for the issues, noting particularly how poor sanitation and hygiene have a detrimental effect on women and girl children. He is loved by billions of people around the world and is in fact the first celebrity global ambassador on these issues. In the coming months, he will advocate with the public about the impact toilets and proper hand-washing on their lives by highlighting the strong linkages it has on their health and the environment around them including their groundwater sources. The first video of his public announcement on the cause has been uploaded on YouTube already.

Any specific plan WSSCC has for India?

Yes, through its Global Sanitation Fund, WSSCC is investing five million U.S. dollars over the next five years in Assam and Jharkhand which will raise awareness about sanitation level of eight million people. The work there will help to improve capacity so that India's own funds through the Total Sanitation Campaign can be more accessible and effective.

There are a number of low-cost technologies that can address the issue of availability of toilets for people worldwide. Any particularly successful example?

There are lots of successful examples of good technologies which are low cost and excellent. But the most important thing is that whatever the technology, it is properly maintained and serviced. People want a clean, hygienic toilet to use so they may take care of nature's call in privacy and with dignity.

What after all are the fundamental requirements to achieve the goal of better sanitation worldwide?

As I said in my concluding speech at the global meet, we need to work harder to persuade others – politicians, the media, thought leaders – that sanitation is important to them. It is no use just talking among ourselves as sanitation professionals. We are emphasising one of our key messages in particular, that sanitation generates economic benefits. Ultimately, for all our professional concerns about health or the environment, the economic arguments are the most powerful, both with householders themselves and with political leaders.

There are still some tough problems, for example people who lack sanitation are those with no political voice; peoples' access to improved sanitation has to be sustained indefinitely; and that the sanitation problems of urban slums are growing rapidly. Some people seek technical solutions for these problems, but I say we should be spending more energy on finding political and social solutions.

I have four points at hand: First, hard work. It is slow, steady work, house by house, community by community. Secondly, plain speaking. We must speak out about the subject using plain language that everybody can understand. This will bring sanitation and toilets and shit into regular professional and policy dialogue. Thirdly, strong leadership. From Mahatma Gandhi in 1925 saying that sanitation is more important than independence, to the UN Secretary General this year saying “It is time to put sanitation and access to proper toilets at the centre of our development discussions”, we need strong direction from global leaders.

Fourthly, thinking big. I suggest that we should be thinking at the scale of 2.5 billion people. To do this, it is more important to grow the ideas that work than to grow our organisations. Great ideas spread like viruses, so we want this virus to become a pandemic. And everybody has a role to play — NGO workers, ministers, academics, civil servants, media professionals, donors, young people and the business community.

SRK is loved by billions of people around the world and is in fact the first celebrity global ambassador on the issues of better sanitation and hygiene Jon Lane