The Nirmal Bharat Yatra

was a sanitation & hygiene awareness & behavior change campaign conceptualized & implemented by WASH United & Quicksand. It travelled 2,000 kms across rural parts of 5 Indian states between 2nd October 2012 & 19th November 2012.

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The Nirmal Bharat Great WASH Yatra: what a long, strange and wonderful journey it has been

We are nearing the end, with just days to go before the end of the magical and mystical trip
known as the Nirmal Bharat Yatra – called by some the Great WASH Yatra. Never before has
India, indeed the world, seen so many people come together for water, sanitation and hygiene
in a single, coordinated, travelling manifestation. Already 100,000 people have attended; 109
school trainings have occurred; and 300-plus articles have been written about this unique

All at once, the Yatra is about toilets, taps and sanitary pads. It is also about Bollywood, sports
and politics. It is about health and dignity and economic empowerment for hundreds of
millions of Indians without safe sanitation, and the solidarity that binds them and all of the 2.5
billion people desiring ... yearning ... demanding a clean, safe and private place to take care of
their “daily needs.”

Euphemisms aside, to poop and to pee is something that we all do, but we see now that the
colours of sanitation are a kaleidoscope. While shit (a more authentic and powerful word than
its functional brethren, “faeces”, “excrement”, “human waste”) is brown, and pee is yellow, the
Yatra reminds us that menstrual blood is red. But do we really need such a reminder in the
world we live in?

For sanitation, we do. The Yatra showed us why, in painting broad strokes to highlight the 300
million Indian women who suffer shame and pain because of their menses. Journalist Rose
George also showed us why in an eloquent and elegant report on just one of those 300 million,
Neelam, a 14-year-old girl.

“She has a narrow, pretty face. Her hair is long and black. Her uniform has been torn and
repaired. This August, she got stomach pains. She had eaten some street food, so thought the
pains were due to that. Nothing unusual. But the pains continued in her abdomen, for hours and
hours. Finally she went to the bathroom, and there she saw blood. And she was terrified. She
was truly scared, because she knew what it was. It meant that she had what her mother had [her
mother who had passed away 9 years before] and it meant that she was dying. Really. She had
reached the age of 14 without knowing that one day she would bleed and it would be normal.”

So it is for Neelam and millions like her, in India, Africa and elsewhere, that the Yatra came to
be. It is the stuff of WASH advocacy in action written large, a colourful carnival and celebratory
mega-campaign that has traversed 2,000 km across five Indian states, the last stop being this
weekend in Bettiah – in Bihar, India, with 100 million people and gigantic sanitation needs.
Figures from 2010 show that just 25 percent of rural households having some kind of sanitation
facilities there.

But it is more than a carnival. The serious sustainability from something like the Yatra comes
from its work in schools; teachers and students have shown the kind of excitement and
enthusiasm that one really believes will lead to behaviour change.The Yatra has also been the
scene of new research on thoughts, opinions and attitudes by women and girls about their
menstrual hygiene management.

In a move to popularize and raise awareness about menstrual health and hygiene among the
women, the State of Bihar will provide sanitary napkins at a nominal cost in rural areas of its 10
districts. This initiative is under the Adolescent Reproductive and Sexual Health (ARSH) scheme
a part of the National Rural Health Mission. A bundle of five packs of sanitary napkins at Rs.6
each will be given to women in rural areas of 10 districts.

The scheme is soon to be launched in Vaishali, Aurangabad, Rohtas, Kaimur, Bhojpur, Buxar,
Saran, Darbhanga, Munger and Gaya districts. In Vaishali, the napkins would be manufactured by
a self-help group, while in other districts these would be produced by Hindustan Latex Limited,
the country’s largest producer of condoms.

So awareness is being raised, and action is occurring in the great and diverse country that
is India. The Yatra fits well with the country’s traditions, and its traditional father, Mahatma
Gandhi. In Bettiah, the Yatra culminates, more than six weeks after it was launched on Gandhi’s
birthday on 2 October in New Delhi. Mahatma Gandhi, the father of independence, was no
stranger to sanitation, by the way. He came to Bettiah in West Champaran, India, for the first
time in 1917. Gandhi's historic visit to Champaran was opposed by the British rulers. An order asking
him to leave Champaran was served upon him as soon as he arrived. Gandhi defied the order. After
considerable struggle the Government was compelled to lift the ban on Gandhi's stay here. For the
first time on Indian soil Satyagraha (Non-Violence) was successfully put to the test and subsequently
gave birth to the nationwide non-co-operation movement.

Gandhi was one of the earliest advocates of sanitation in India, saying that sanitation was more
important for India than freedom! The Yatra route and journey seeks to evoke that vision for action
and change. His spirit lives in so many ways, not the least in many of the people involved with
the Yatra. With some fanfare and a new sanitation ambassador, Bollywood actress Vidya Balan,
the Yatra took off. It drew hugely important support from the Rural Development Minister
Jairam Ramesh. It has attracted Chief Ministers, Collectors, Chief Executive Officers and many
more besides the high ranking officials in places where it has stopped. We’ve seen acrobats and
fire eaters, men and women, young and old, the able and differently able, girls and boys, cricket
stars and aspiring song and dance champions. All have embraced the Yatra.

The Yatra culminates on 19 November, known by an increasing number of people as World
Toilet Day. Or at least until the very last one of those 2.5 billion people has a toilet, loo or latrine
– the name doesn’t matter, as Shakespeare once said. To have one to use would indeed be sweet.

Neelam showed us that it is the individual stories that punch through the lights and the noise
and remind us why we, WSSCC and the Yatra originators WASH United and Quicksand along
with forward-thinking and generous donors like the Swiss Development Cooperation, are
committed to the themes of World Toilet Day.

WSSCC has been conducting ground-breaking research with women and girl participants at
the Yatra stops on the subject of menstrual hygiene management. Asked for the very first time
to share their views, concerns, fears, needs and ideas – the words poured forth in a river of
emotions. Of 426 school girls interviewed, we found not a single one that wanted to change their
sanitary materials – pads if they had them, rags if they didn’t -- at school. Female teachers and
nurses who worked in schools and clinics had the same experience. Worse still, many chose to
stay at home in order to avoid the embarrassment, pain, shame and discomfort that comes every
month with their periods.

We found time and time again that the girls reported they could not talk about their periods at
home, at school or even with friends in an open manner. In India, 23% of girls drop out of school
when they reach puberty, according to a study by Plan India and AC Nielson. World Toilet Day
demands safe and appropriate toilet facilities to keep girls in school. The partners in the Yatra
and the thousands of women and girls participating demand it as well.

November 19 may be the end of the Yatra, but it is not the end of the road. There will be more
Yatras. There will be more World Toilet Days. There will be millions of people and thousands
of concerned NGOs, community groups, government officials and even companies fighting for

these issues. We won’t stop until health, wealth and dignity are a reality for the billions of people

without safe sanitation and hygiene. We will depart Bettiah, Bihar, more committed
than ever before. Our road will be long, and it will be winding. As the Indian poet
Rabindranath Tagore reminds us:

“Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark. “

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