In 2012, Australian Mark Balla was on a train in Mumbai when he made two young friends who lived in Dharavi, one of the largest slums in the world. When his new friends Faheem and Tauseef, who were both university students, took Balla to Dharavi, it was an experience that would change his life.
“Dharavi was about five times as big as Chadstone Shopping centre, possibly a million people living there. It has industry, shopping precincts, temples, playgrounds and schools,” says Balla. Of course, much has been reported and written about Dharavi, “a neighbourhood smack in the heart of Mumbai, which retains the emotional and historical pull of a subcontinental Harlem—a square-mile (three square km) centre of all things, geographically, psychologically, spiritually,” according to the National Geographic.
Blessed with the usual Indian hospitality in abundance, Balla was visiting people’s homes and looking around when he ended up in a school. “I was walking around and there were lots of teenage boys but no teenage girls in the school. I asked them why and they told me because there were no toilets in the school.” That piece of information came as a shock to him. Coming from Australia, it was something he could never imagine. Since then, the Blackburn businessman has taken on a mission: to create as many toilets for girls in India.
Balla’s cause assumes significance as it comes at a time when a lot of focus on women safety in India is linked to toilets. Violence is just one of many problems associated with the lack of sanitation. The recent case of two cousins gang raped and hung from a tree in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh is one of the incidents that prove how women have become the biggest victims of India's sanitation crisis. “What I have been saying to people in Australia is that the only difference between that story and others is, one made it to the international press. This has been going on for a long time in India and it is not anything new,” says Balla.
Statistics compiled by WaterAid in India show that just 15 percent of rural people have access to a toilet. Many people are still forced to go to the toilet on the side of a road or by water which will then be used for cooking, cleaning and washing. More than 700 million people have no access to toilets with proper waste disposal systems.
For women, the problem is confounded as they become victims of sexual crime when they go to open fields or anywhere. It is said that often they normally move in pairs to avoid being preyed upon. A report recently released by India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development says, “About 20 per cent schools in India still lack toilet facilities for girls.” The report, titled Elementary Education in India, has also highlighted that enrolment of girls has come down to 48.20 per cent this year, as compared to last year’s 48.36 per cent. The enrolment of girls (from class I to V) has increased by a meagre 0.1 per cent from last year’s 48.35 to 48.36 this year.
Balla’s own reading and research has given him a lot of statistics one of which is that 25 percent of teenage girls miss at least 50 days of school per year, 40 percent of schools in India have no separate toilet for girls and another 40 per cent have toilets that are effectively non-functional, he says quoting the figures from the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council.
Further, UN and state government data say there are 200,000 schools in India with no toilets. The other statistics is 400,000 schools in India have toilets that don’t work. “What it means is that you have 600,000 schools where you can’t go to toilets, and then you have schools with completely inadequate toilets, shared between boys and girls which is not going to work for teenage girls. Some of the drainage goes behind the toilet so you see what is coming through. So when the girls are menstruating, it is not going to happen,” explains Balla. “My daughter was about 13 when I visited this place and I thought she is excited about what is coming for her and her life whereas for these girls, it often means end of their education. Growing into a woman means end of education,” reflects Balla.
Balla was in the board of a company for many years, that had a joint venture between an Australian company and SaReGaMa India limited. With its factory in Kolkata and board in Mumbai, he was travelling almost four times a year to India. The more he travelled to the country, the closer it brought him to the sanitation issue for girls. He saw the problems first hand and wanted to do something about it.
So last year, he founded the charity ‘We Can’t Wait’. Balla says he began with just started telling the story to people here in Australia. “But even in India when I told the story to people they were surprised.” However, he also hit a note of frustration when he confided this to his friend: “I am telling the story but what am I doing with it”, at which his friend told him, “Keep doing what you are doing, keep telling the story, you are an evangelist.”
So far he has given more than 15 presentations at different forums including private girls’ school in Melbourne to raise awareness. While the funds are important, of equal importance is raising awareness, he believes. He is also keen to rope in the Indian community in Melbourne. “No one can help this issue more than the Indian community in India and in other countries.”
Balla is happy that there is now a structure behind his work. He has already started fund raising, collecting a modest few thousand dollars for starters. The plan is to raise 30,000 AUD to begin the first toilet project in Maharashtra. “The reception that I am been getting here is fantastic.”
At the charity’s first fundraiser which was held at a private girl’s school in Melbourne, Balla met all the girls and when he told them the story, he ended up raising double of what the school expected to raise. The money that his charity has collected will go through his Rotary Club to the Rotary Club in Nasik, Maharashtra, whom they have tied up to begin work.
“My Rotary club will probably come out with a little bit extra but I am not concerned about the money. Our club’s role is to help spread the word and also to give us credibility. There are opportunities for more money through other Rotary clubs in Melbourne. We got another fundraising event coming up in August, I am expecting that when we are ready to start the first project between us and the Rotary district in India we will get 30,000 AUD. That would be enough for anywhere between 5 and 7 schools,” he says. “If Rotary becomes very engaged in this there are opportunities for broader international support. Right now the support from Rotary here and in India has been very supportive and wonderful.”
Balla has made as many as 25 visits to India in the past few years. “I almost feel like a local,” he smiles. But having got himself hooked to a very contemporary issue, he is determined to spread the word. “It is absolutely critical.” Interestingly, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also proclaimed in Parliament that his tenure was going to be ‘more toilets, less temples’. Unfortunately, even after more than 60 years of Independence, a rapidly-modernising country like India is the world capital of ‘open defecation’.
“The thing about this story is I think one of the best stories I have ever heard. And it is going to catch people’s attention. It is so shocking and so personal. The look on the faces of teenage girls particularly when I tell them the story is they can’t believe it. The power of the story is phenomenal,” says Balla.
A lot of good has come out of after Balla was written about by the local press. He received encouraging support from everyone including a 23-year old Indian international student who texted saying he will build him a website for free. “I met him today for the first time. He gave me 150 AUD towards the charity and to give this much is touching from especially a self-funded student. To mention this generosity would be really good,” he says. “The Indian community here has so much to offer and they can relate to it as well. “
Balla believes there are two types of foreigners that go to India – those that want to get on the first plane out and those who love it. Clearly, he belongs to the latter. “I love the place, it has got its problems but I love it.” But the zeal and passion to help comes from his strong belief that it is unacceptable for girls to stop going to schools because of lack of toilets. “I want this thing which I have started to become bigger than me. I am the driving force but I am not important.”
He is finding encouragement from unexpected quarters too. Recently someone left a note on his car that said: I would like to thank you on behalf of half a million people who don’t have toilets, on behalf of half a million people who have to go to toilet on railway tracks, on behalf of all those villagers who have to walk a mile in the dark to go to toilet, on behalf of all those people queuing up against single toilet and waiting 30-40 mins for their turn almost every day, on behalf of all those forlorn moms who left their girls to go to the toilet in the dark in spite of knowing the risks, on behalf of all Indians.” For Ball, that is clearly a gratifying message.