gday india

This Australian is fighting for Indian girls’ right to toilets

Mark Balla is a Blackburn-based businessman who is leading the crusade to create more toilets for girls in India. Here is his story on why and how he is doing this sitting in Australia. Read on…

In 2012, 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. 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

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.

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.

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.” The money that his charity collects will go through his Rotary Club to the Rotary Club in Nasik, Maharashtra, whom they have tied up to begin work.

By Indira Laisram

(Learn more or donate at www.facebook.com/wecannotwait )