Interview | Jack Sim Mumbai

‘For behavioural change, we need to make toilet a fashion’

Mumbai: As the 18th edition of the World Toilet Summit (WTS) kicked off in the city on Monday, The Hindu spoke to Jack Sim, founder, World Toilet Organisation (WTO), the host of the event. The WTO is a global non-profit that has been working towards reducing the gap between the government, corporate organisations, and civil society. Excerpts:

You quit your business to come into this sector. But why did you choose toilets and sanitation?

When I was 40, I realised that I did not need more money and could lead a simple life. If I was going to live up to 80, I had to make every day meaningful. Then I thought to myself, which social cause had the most meaning? The answer was the one nobody wanted to do; therefore, toilets. Nobody would fund the cause. I decided to take it up. It was in line with my nature, the naughty one (laughs).

You are engaging with the Indian government. What do you think of the initiatives it is taking?

I think it is really good because which world leader would spend $10 billion to construct 110 million toilets for its people? Even if we think a certain number of toilets will not be used, the majority will change the landscape, quality of life of Indian people. Then we can spend some time to change behaviour and one day it will be normal to have a toilet. So Prime Minister Narendra Modi is moving from ‘It is normal not to have a toilet’ to ‘it is normal to have a toilet’. It is a tectonic shift… even the Chinese President started a toilet revolution. If the two biggest country leaders are toilet champions, you can imagine, 50% of the world’s toilet problem will be gone. Then there will be an unstoppable momentum. I grew up in Singapore. We were a very poor country in 1965, when we were independent… we refused foreign aid because it came with strings attached. We turned our country from the third world to first world in 25 years. One of the reasons was sanitation. First, you clean streets, then rivers, then toilets, then gang wars, corruption… because clean is a mindset. Clean also refers to spiritually clean.

In India, merely construction of toilets is not the issue. Sometimes there is no water, sewer networks. Sometimes, it is linked to caste. Thus, it can be an economic, social, cultural issue. Has the WTO studied these issues and do you plan to work on them?

First of all, sewer diving needs to stop, for which we set up a World Toilet College in Aurangabad. We gave manual scavengers equipment to perform their job. When they go inside, they breathe toxic gas… each year, 200 of them die. They have a short lifespan of 40 years, because the toxic fumes destroy their body. For behavioural change, we need to make toilet a fashion. Not all things are rational. Emotion is faster. Then a toilet will become a status symbol, and if you ask them (why have you built a toilet), they say it is for health and hygiene.

What are your expectations from the summit?

In 2007, the then President Abdul Kalam and the crown prince of Netherlands had come to the summit. They legitimised toilets (the subject), and then politicians used toilets to win elections. In 2015, when Mr. Modi declared his intentions to construct toilets, we had a WTS. If you want to build toilets, you need to train locals in building, cleaning, and repairing them. The summit is for behavioural change. All the people here are experts. We mobilise them, get them to work with one another, and find solutions to sustain the open-defecation free (ODF) tag. By next year, India will be ODF, which means we will have all the hardware. It will take another 10 years to get the progressive habits — the software. Bangladesh is a smaller country but they took 13 years to change their behaviour. For India, it has been four years. If we take 10 years, it should work.

Mumbai was declared ODF recently. When the media highlight it, people point out rampant open defecation. Is the ODF tag used by governments to simply pat themselves on the back?

You must expect imperfection in such a compressed programme. But imperfection does not destroy the fact that a lot of other ones work. We should think of the mission to keep up the momentum. Of course we can highlight the gaps, but we should be optimistic.

People might question the parameters in the first place

The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation has declared that after the ODF declaration, it will have a 10-year programme to ensure the tag remains. The behavioural change process will then be complete.

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Printable version | May 11, 2021 11:11:21 AM |

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