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Indian PM Narendra Modi Brings Vision Of “Toilets Before Temples” To A U.S. Audience

At the Global Citizen Festival, Modi calls on activists to get behind a plan to end open defecation and install toilets in every Indian home.

Indian PM Narendra Modi Brings Vision Of “Toilets Before Temples” To A U.S. Audience
[Photo: Flickr user Anthony Quintano]

On Saturday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stood on a stage in Central Park and saluted 60,000 mostly youthful activists who had earned tickets to the Global Citizen Festival through their work against global poverty. Modi was one of the event’s headliners, along with Jay-Z, Beyonce, and The Roots, all of whom had gathered to promote not just awareness of poverty but also action to fight it. Specifically, the organizers had invited him to highlight his pledge to expand sanitation in India and end open defecation, one of the keystone efforts of his government.

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The story of how he ended up championing this cause at the somewhat unusual venue of a rock concert goes back to a Fast Company‘s profile of Hugh Evans, founder of the Global Poverty Project, which sponsored the event.

Congressman Aaron Schock spotted the article as he caught up on his reading during a flight from Illinois to Washington, D.C. “I usually have two or three newspapers–my hometown paper, The Peoria Journal Star; The Chicago Tribune, and The Wall Street Journal–and a bunch of magazines, everything from GQ and Fast Company to Inc. and Time,” he says. In June, he was reading the latest issue of Fast Company when he came across the Evans profile: “I tore the pages out and when I got to D.C., I walked into my senior adviser Ben Cole’s office and said, ‘I want to meet him.’” A few minutes later, Cole came into Schock’s office and said, “He’s in D.C. right now. What are you doing this evening?”

Evans says that he’d never heard of Schock, but a congressman is a congressman. So later that night, he invited Schock along to Katy Perry’s concert at the Verizon Center. Coincidentally, Schock had taken a group of his interns to the concert the previous night as a thank-you gift. Evans, who says “when I run around Central Park, I’ve been known to run to Firework,” wanted to pitch Perry’s manager on the possibility of having the singer perform at a future GPP event.

Afterward, they went to dinner in Chinatown. Evans told Schock about GPP’s plans, including their desire to focus on sanitation. That would require a focus on India, but GPP had had no luck reaching Prime Minister Modi. Typically, GPP works its backroom channels, including relationships with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Bank, while simultaneously activating its youth networks to barrage public officials with hundreds of thousands of messages and tweets. “It’s always about multiple channels,” Evans says.

In this instance, though, Schock proved to be the golden gateway to Modi. He had been the first U.S. congressman to meet Modi, back when Modi was still the controversial first minister of the state of Gujarat. (He acknowledges he did so against the explicit counsel of the State Department, which had imposed a travel ban on Modi for his alleged involvement in deadly anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat. “He is not a bad actor,” Schock insists. “He’s an honest actor.”)

In August, Evans and Schock flew to India. Also along on the trip: representatives of Caterpillar, whose charitable foundation had made a $2.5 million pledge to GPP–and which, coincidentally, is headquartered in Schock’s Illinois district. Even after the group arrived at Modi’s official residence in Delhi, Modi’s aides tried to keep Evans and the rest of the entourage out, arguing that it should just be a private meeting between elected officials. Schock ignored them and Modi, who seemed unaware of any of the machinations before the meeting, received them warmly.

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In the end, Evans says, “we had almost an hour of his time.” Evans talked about traveling to India as a teenager, when he volunteered with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Modi discussed the formidable challenge of ending open defecation in India by 2019–the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth. He reiterated the message he had first shared with the country earlier in the summer during his Red Fort speech, India’s State of the Union: “We need to build toilets before we build more temples.” Then, Schock and Evans invited Modi to share that message from the stage of the Global Citizen Festival in New York; the Prime Minister would be in town anyway for the U.N. General Assembly. On the spot, Modi said yes.

Modi sees the elevation of sanitation standards as a key measure to eradicate extreme poverty, develop the Indian economy, and make it friendlier to outside investment. (Schock notes the jarring juxtaposition of seeing “someone walking down the street in a fine suit, past someone who is openly defecating literally feet away.”) Schock believes that the appeal of a popular forum like the festival coincided with the Prime Minister’s understanding that he needs to build a movement. There’s already plenty of funding for his sanitation initiatives, with Indian companies having pledged tens of millions of dollars for more toilets.

But even where there are public toilets in India, they are often not well maintained. Open-air defecation is seen as more sanitary in many communities. One villager said to Schock: “I go for my morning walk and I relieve myself in a field. I am one with nature.” Others told Schock and Evans that they found it unhygienic to share a toilet with others: “Why would I want to go into a room where my sister or mother or brother relieved themselves? That is unsanitary.” And as Evans points out, “if you ran the risk of contracting malaria from your toilet, you wouldn’t want to go use it either. And imagine if you had to go to a toilet that was shared by you plus 1,000 other people in a community and there was no mechanism to ensure it was kept up.”

On this trip, Evans says, he met one woman who owned a sparklingly clean indoor toilet–but she wouldn’t allow anyone else to use it. To capitalize on the sense of ownership, Modi plans to make the toilet each household’s crown jewel. By 2019, he hopes that every household and every school in the country will have its own toilet. “It will become a private asset,” Evans says, “and all signs point to private assets being kept in better repair than public ones.”

The infrastructure buildout will need to be accompanied by massive education to shift mindsets. And while outsiders can provide support, it will only be community members themselves who can create change. They traveled to one village where a group of female elders told them a story about how they had educated the entire community about the importance of indoor toilets.

“They didn’t say ‘defecation.’ They said ‘shit.’ They said, ‘Just because you take a shit in the field doesn’t mean it stays there. The flies that just landed on your food also landed on that shit,’” Schock recalls. “One woman held up a glass of water and said, ‘Who would drink this?’ Everyone raised their hands and they passed the glass around. Then she took a piece of hair and slid it through a piece of shit. Then she stuck the hair in the water and asked, ‘Who wants to take a sip of this water?’” Nobody volunteered. The woman continued: “What you don’t understand is that the fly has four legs that are the same size as the hair. When the fly lands on the shit and then your food, you are eating your neighbor’s shit. You don’t even like your neighbor–and you’re eating your neighbor’s shit.” Within months, a community of 380 homes, only 10% of which had previously had indoor toilets, had been entirely converted.

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To replicate this change in thousands of Indian communities, Modi will need both elders and youngsters. “Some believe that the world changes with the wisdom of the old,” he said from the stage at the Global Citizen Festival. “I think that the idealism, innovation, energy and ‘can-do’ attitude of the youth is even more powerful.” Then, in a perhaps unwitting nod to the otherworldly help his effort might need too, he saluted the crowd and said, “May the force be with you.”

About the author

Jeff Chu writes on international affairs, social issues, and design for Fast Company. His first book, Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, was published by HarperCollins in April 2013.

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