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.

The Yatra

With 1,000 Indian children dying from preventable diarrhea every day, India is the undisputed world leader in child mortality from diarrhea, far ahead of Pakistan, Bangladesh or China. There are two main reasons for these preventable deaths and millions more that are left physically stunted, mentally disabled and severely malnourished from repeated episodes of excreta-related diseases. There are two main causes for this daily tragedy in India. First, the country’s rampant open defecation. The 626 million Indians who poop on railroad tracks, roadside ditches and other open spaces in and around their communities every day creating a pile of disease-loaded excrement that very literally would fill Mumbai’s Wankhede cricket stadium to the roof every day. The biggest weapon of mass destruction on the planet. The second reason is poor handwashing hygiene. While proper handwashing with soap at critical times can reduce the occurrence of diarrhea nearly by half, making handwashing with soap the by far most cost-effective intervention to combat diarrheal disease, it is not yet widely practiced in India, a country normally. According to the Public Health Association, only 53 per cent of the Indian population washes hands with soap after defecation, 38 per cent washes hands with soap before eating and only 30 per cent washes hands with soap before preparing food.

The Nirmal Bharat Yatra (Great WASH Yatra, as it was known internationally) format is the brainchild of WASH United and Quicksand Design Studio. From 3 October until 19 November 2012 – the first Yatra made its way 2,000 km through villages from Maharashtra to Bihar, stopping in the following six cities: Wardha (Maharashtra), Indore (Madhya Pradesh), Kota (Rajastan), Gwalior (Madhya Pradesh), Gorakhpur (Uttar Pradesh), and Bettiah (Bihar). The following cities were chosen as these are the states with the highest rates of open defecation and least toilet usage in all of India. The Yatra aimed to tackle three primary messages: handwashing at proper times, ending open defecation, and ending the topic of menstrual hygiene management as a societal taboo. Through local, national, and international media, the Yatra reached 230 million people with its message. 

Launch Press Conference - Delhi

On September 28, 2012, the media gathered at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi to witness the launching of the Nirmal Bharat Yatra. Thorsten Kiefer and Nirat Bhatnagar, the heads of WASH United and WASH United India respectively, introduced the Yatra's unique elements and ambitious scope. They were joined by Jairam Ramesh, who at the time was Minister for Drinking Water and Sanitation, as well as his ministry's brand ambassador, Bollywood sensation Vidya Balan. Rounding out the panel were Rohini Nilekani, founder of Arghyam, and Archana Patkar, Programme Manager for the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, who introduced their organizations as key partners for the Nirmal Bharat Yatra. 

Thorsten Kiefer poses with Ms. Balan. Ms. Balan represented one aspect of the entertainment and fun driven approach that WASH United approaches behaviour change in the sanitation sector with. Her presence embodies the model of having sports and cinema based role models who the whole country can look to as inspiration to use toilets, wash hands thoroughly and often and to break the taboo of speaking about menstrual hygiene management.

Jairam Ramesh waves the Yatra's flag, ending the launch ceremony and sending off the bus with our staff, who left that very moment for Sewagram, Maharashtra, the first stop of the Nirmal Bharat Yatra's sanitation and hygiene themed mela. Mr. Ramesh himself joined the celebration in Maharashtra about a week later, helping WASH United inaugurate their innovative games, which made up the backbone of this fresh and pioneering approach. 


Six kilometres east of Wardha, a small city in the cotton-growing region of Maharashtra known as Vidarbha, lies a village called Sewagram. Famous as the location of Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram, the village’s grounds served as the kick-off location for the Great WASH Yatra. Despite torrential rains that capped the monsoon season and postponed the opening of our carnival two days, over 13,000 attendees came to participate in the fun games, breath-taking performances, and festive atmosphere – all built around sanitation and hygiene messaging.

Of these attendees, a massive number were incredibly enthusiastic school children who mastered our games, cheered wholeheartedly for our performers and lent the carnival a joyous and youthful feel.

Local schools also sent teams of contestants for our song and dance competitions that took place on the main stage, where earlier in the day the Yatra’s organizers and important government ministers gave impassioned speeches on ending open-defecation and improving handwashing behaviour across India. If our kick-off in Sewagram told us anything it was to trust in the eagerness of children to learn about improving sanitation and hygiene for themselves and their families.


The Yatra team arrived at Devi Garodia Gram Panchayat, just south of Indore, in the state of Madhya Pradesh on 7 October 2012 with a full week to prepare for its second launch.

Indore was marked by celebrations for Global Handwashing Day. 15 October was Global Handwashing Day (GHD), which aims to further spread good handwashing practice around the world. The Nirmal Bharat Yatra celebrated GHD with a handwashing mega-party in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. The carnival-style mela boasted more than 20 different interactive hygiene and sanitation games, exciting Bollywood-style stage performances, as well as addresses by senior political decision makers committed to promote hand hygiene and sanitation in India such as Hon. Jairam Ramesh (Minister of Rural Development and Drinking Water and Sanitation, Government of India). A special highlight was the “Soap Lab”, where visitors learned to build their own “tippy taps”, ingenious handwashing facilities that cost less than USD $1 to create, and can check their hand-hygiene status using ultraviolet light.

Perhaps most notable was the world’s biggest handwashing ambassador, Bullbulle (Hindi for bubbles). Bullbulle was a fully-grown elephant who sported the Nirmal Bharat Yatra logo, and handed out soap to attendees who demonstrated proper handwashing technique. Over 15,000 attendees came to Indore, as Bullbulle made a huge splash.


Sangod, Rajasthan, a small town 70km south of Kota, was the third stop of the NBY. We had known Rajasthan would be special, but the rich colours, beautiful dress and high spirits of the crowd exceeded the hype. Over the course of our two day mela, a record breaking 33,000 people, young and old, flowed through our gates.

Sangod saw the riveting premiere of Nirmal Bharat Idol, a show that focuses on the talents of participants in our WASH in Schools programme, while showcasing their commitment to good sanitation and hygiene behaviour. Our First winner was the wonderful singer, Faizan Khan.

Hon. Minister of Rural Development Jairam Ramesh continued to give our crowd much to think about in his passionate speeches in support of our cause. In Sangod, he urged brides-to-be to insist on toilets being present in the homes of their prospective husbands, creating the new catchphrase: “No Toilet, No Bride.”


Our ten days in Jalalpur gram panchayat, on the northern outskirts of Gwalior, coincided with the Dussehra festival, during which an effigy of the evil god Ravana is burnt, symbolizing the triumph of good over evil. We altered a 20ft Ravana effigy to resemble the Nirmal Bharat Yatra’s “archenemy,” the Dastasura or “diarrhea demon.” Its burning was followed by music and dancing, and kicked our stay in Gwalior off with high spirits.

The team also got a chance to interact with the folks from EAWAG, a Swiss research agency that is monitoring and evaluating the efficacy of the Yatra’s various elements. A month before the Yatra arrived in each of its locations EAWAG carried out preliminary surveys on sanitation and hygiene awareness among target populations, and have followed up with those initial subjects while they are attending the mela, soon afterwards, and then a few months afterwards. With EAWAGs help, WASH United will be able to improve on future Yatra’s and other endeavors based on “immersive education,” our fun-and-games based behaviour change enactment technique.

And of course, the WASH Star competition, newly renamed from Nirmal Bharat Idol, had its second iteration. Ram Lakhan, a lanky young man whose exuberant dancing won the crowd’s approval, became our second finalist. He’ll compete against Faizan Khan from Sangod and the winners in Gorakhpur and Bettiah on November 17th. Keep your eyes peeled!


The Nirmal Bharat Yatra team set up its fifth launch on the Murari Inter High School Grounds in Sahjanwa, approximately 28 km west of Gorakhpur City. Over the course of two days, the Yatra boasted nearly 40,000 attendees making our total attendance thus far 100,000+ participants across five locations.




Local schools continued to send teams of contestants for our song and dance competition that took place on the main stage. Gorakhpur also boasted perhaps the most creative skit performances thus far where children drew beautiful images dictating the sanitation and hygiene crisis across India.

Finally, the WASH Star competition continued in Gorakhpur with its third iteration. Rakesh Kumar Yadav, a lanky young man whose singing and swinging hips won the crowd’s approval, became our third finalist. He’ll compete against Faizan Khan from Sangod, Ram Lakhan from Gwalior and the winner in Bettiah at the finale on November 17th.


Four hours north of Patna, the state capital of Bihar, and only about 60km from the Nepal border, the Nirmal Bharat Yatra culminated in the small city of Bettiah. While remote, the city is known for being the launching ground for one of Mahatma Gandhi’s initial challenges to the British Raj, where he organized villagers to perform community service while practicing non-violent civil disobedience.

The mela took place in Bettiah’s Maharaja Stadium, a fitting scene for the Yatra’s grand finale. By the closing bell, over 1.6 lakh people had attended over the course of all six stops, with the record being broken in Bettiah just before World Toilet Day on November 19th.

The thrilling cap to the experience was undeniably the WASH Star contest final that saw six candidates sing their hearts out, to the lyrics of self-written sanitation songs. Sapna Kumari, a Bettiah resident herself, stole the show with her soothing voice and incredible personal story of triumph over adversity. A wild-card entry, brought to the stage by popular demand, she received a roaring standing ovation, and a bright shiny trophy. She will be WASH United’s local sanitation ambassador for the years to come.