Skip to main content

Can Mr. Poo stop public defecation in India?

By Arshiya Khullar, for CNN
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 0554 GMT (1354 HKT)
File photo: A Indian man washes as another comes out of a toilet in a toilet complex run by an NGO Sulabh International at railway station in New Delhi in 2011.
File photo: A Indian man washes as another comes out of a toilet in a toilet complex run by an NGO Sulabh International at railway station in New Delhi in 2011.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • More than 620 million Indians still defecate in the open
  • UNICEF's campaign aims to educate the youth about the health hazards associated with public defecation
  • More than 28 million children do not have access to toilets in their schools, increasing risk of infections

(CNN) -- India has an unlikely new public health hero: a giant, anthropomorphic stool that chases people to squat in toilets.

Mr Poo, who appears in commercials accompanied by a groovy techno anthem, is the face of the latest public health campaign by United Nations Children's Fund in the country. With a bold and quirky approach unlike any previous awareness drives, the 'Poo2Loo' campaign seeks to bring people's attention to the health hazards associated with public defecation -- a deep-rooted social norm in the country's rural and urban slums

According to UNICEF, India has the highest number of people in the world -- an estimated 620 million -- who defecate in the open, creating a major public health hazard by leaving an estimated 65 million kilograms of waste each day. Only half of the population uses toilets.

With an animated video, a catchy song with 'toilet sounds', and even a smartphone application, the digitally-led campaign is targeted at the country's youth.

Millions of voters head to polls in India
Brutality against bonded labor in India
Here's what shocked Bourdain in Punjab

The campaign uses "quirky, informative and inspiring language," said UNICEF spokeswoman Maria Fernandez. "It also contains humour to better connect with the target audience. Once they [the youth] are exposed to the issue...they will be encouraged to know more."

Poo woes

The approach might be humorous, but the underlying issue isn't.

Open defecation is almost universal amongst the poorest 20 percent of India's population.

An absence of adequate toilets and water facilities is as much the reason for this as is a lack of awareness about proper sanitation and hygiene.

The number of toilets in the country is far below what is required, but even when community toilets are provided, many people in rural India continue to defecate in the open due to a lack of education about proper hygiene.

Projects such as the Total Sanitation Campaign -- a community-led program launched in 1999 to address the country's sanitation woes -- have boosted toilet facilities, but hundreds of millions of people remain without access to toilets.

There is also a huge discrepancy between the government's data on the number of toilets built and what some reports claim. The Union Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation claims that more than 50 percent of the country's rural households were covered by the sanitation drive by 2010, while the last Census conducted in 2011 showed toilet coverage to be only around 30 percent.

Children most at risk

This is of particular concern for children in the country's rural pockets. Reports say poor sanitation is one of the major contributors to India's rampant child malnutrition numbers -- among the highest in the world.

UNICEF's figures show why. More than 28 million children lack access to toilets in their schools. They also face a huge risk of contracting bacterial infections, with over 44 percent of mothers disposing their children's waste in the open. Diarrhoea remains one of the top causes of child deaths in the country, alongside respiratory infections.

The issue of poor sanitation has also been raised by politicians as a priority for the next government.

"Whoever the prime minister is must lead a national movement to make the country open defecation-free in 10 years' time," Union Minister Jairam Ramesh told reporters in March.

The goal seems somewhat ambitious.

While there has been a 20 percent drop in the number of people defecating in the open in the last decade, India has a long way to go before it can meet the 2015 Millennium Development Goal target for sanitation, which requires 75% of the country to have access to sanitation.

India set itself the even loftier target of providing 100% of the rural population with access to toilet facilities by 2012, but that didn't materialize. In fact, the date keeps getting pushed further -- it was initially revised to 2015 and recently set back to 2022.

Using social media, UNICEF is trying to steer people's attention towards this largely taboo issue. However, questions remain about the impact of such an urban campaign, given that its target audience -- youngsters -- are mostly likely to be using toilets in any case.

To which, Maria contends, "If we keep silence, we are contributing to the problem. So the campaign tries to create noise so those who have actually toilets understand the issue and do something about it."

READ MORE: Bringing toilets and dignity to India's poor

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 0023 GMT (0823 HKT)
Wilson Raj Perumal tells CNN how he rigged World Cup games: "I was giving orders to the coach."
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0823 GMT (1623 HKT)
He should be toddling around a playground. Instead, his tiny hands grip an AK-47.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1652 GMT (0052 HKT)
CNN's Will Ripley travels to North Korea, visiting an international wrestling festival and a slide-filled water park.
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 0920 GMT (1720 HKT)
Our whole solar system appears to be inside a searing gas bubble, scientists say.
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1230 GMT (2030 HKT)
In a raid on a luxury apartment complex, agents caught up with a French-Algerian man they accuse of bringing back terror to Europe.
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 0002 GMT (0802 HKT)
One journalist murdered, another still being held by ISIS -- a ransom negotiator talks to CNN about trying to get a hostage home alive.
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
Was a police officer justified in shooting and killing Michael Brown?
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1654 GMT (0054 HKT)
Don't like the country you live in? Meet the people who created their own "micronations."
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1835 GMT (0235 HKT)
South Africa Music Legends stamps
Artist Hendrik Gericke puts a spotlight on iconic performers from South Africa in these incredible monochrome illustrations.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 0946 GMT (1746 HKT)
We asked you what you would like to know about Ebola. Experts answer some of your most common questions and concerns.
CNN joins the fight to end modern-day slavery by shining a spotlight on its horrors and highlighting success stories.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT