An Australian toilet warrior bats for WinS in India

He had worked extremely hard for a couple of years to raise money from his charity, his Rotary club (RC Box Hill Central in Melbourne), his Rotary district (RID 9810) and The Rotary Foundation as well as RC Nashik Road (RID 3030) to build 15 toilets in a school in Nashik. The toilets were inaugurated in 2015 with great fanfare and to the delight of the 500 students of the government school. But three days later, just as Mark Balla, the incoming president of his club, was in Goa preparing to attend a Rotary conference, he got a call from the school principal with the dreaded words: “I’ve got a problem.”

Mark Balla, RC Box Hill Central, RID 9810, Melbourne.
Mark Balla, RC Box Hill Central, RID 9810, Melbourne.

The hair on the back of his neck bristled; he was certainly not anticipating a “problem so soon as we had done something wonderful for that school which did not have a single toilet till then.”

The principal went on to say that the boys are now complaining; “and I said but why, we’ve built toilets not only for the girl students but the boys too.”

Imagine his happiness when Balla heard the principal say the boys were complaining because the queues for drinking water had got longer because the girls had started drinking water too!

It is the same old story… girls, in a school in India without a toilet, not drinking water because they could not go out into the open as boys could. And the man, who subsequently went on to write a book titled The Toilet Warrior, and who has actually become one, had waged a battle to get the toilets built in this school because adolescent girls were dropping out of school for lack of toilets. And the younger ones were not drinking water in that school, so they would not need to use one during school hours!

Mark and Annie Balla with PRID Sushil Gupta in Delhi.
Mark and Annie Balla with PRID Sushil Gupta in Delhi.

But what about the boys, I ask, as we chat at the Rotary News Trust office when Balla was in Chennai a few months ago. “Well, for urinating, they use a wall, or a tree… boys are pretty disgusting, what can I say,” he grins!

An emotional Balla concluded the call with the principal, saying: “Please bring me more such problems; we will deal with this one.” The school would subsequently get more beautification, better drinking water facilities, etc. But to understand this Australian Indophile’s passion for India, let’s go to the beginning, sometime in 2012.

On board of an Indo-Australian joint venture with a factory in Kolkata, he’d come quite often to India for board meetings, some of which were held in Mumbai. One free Sunday afternoon in Mumbai, he took a local train and his life changed forever. On that journey, he started chatting with two young men, who happened to be from Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum. “Fahim and Tausif were both students of the University of Mumbai, and subsequently became close friends. They invited me to visit their community; they still live there. I told them once you get a good job, you can leave the slum. And they said: ‘But we don’t want to leave the slum. It is our home, our community.’”

Even though initially a little nervous, he took a leap of faith and visited Dharavi the next morning, and spent a few hours there watching how the people live, work and thrive there. “I found it to be an extraordinary place, and I have fallen in love with Dharavi now; every time I go to Mumbai I visit Dharavi,” smiles Balla.

Fahim Vora from Dharavi meets some excited kids in Nashik.
Fahim Vora from Dharavi meets some excited kids in Nashik.

Right at the end of that first visit, the two youngsters took him to a school, where he saw to his astonishment that there were “boys of all ages but only little girls; there were no teenage girls, so I asked what is going on here. And I was told that they all dropped out because there are no toilets. This was like a brick hitting me in the head. Coming from Australia, it was like somebody saying I have a house but it has no walls or a roof.”

He also found that the few adolescent girls who stay on, don’t drink water during the day, and during their menstrual periods, skip school altogether. “Which meant that effectively they were losing 25 per cent of their education,” he says.

Remember, this was 2012 and the Swachh Bharat initiative had not yet started and it was the same story in several cities and villages of India. In Australia he started talking to people about this to raise awareness, even while he continued coming to India. Soon their factory in Kolkata faced some trade union problems for which he contacted a consultant from Nashik, who happened to be Firdaus Kapadia, a Rotarian from RC Nashik Road. “I shared my astonishment about a school without toilets in Mumbai during small talk with him, and he said this was a common problem and his Rotary club had a relationship with such a school in Nashik.”

Rotary has so much more to learn about sustainability; we’re trying. But Rotary is still very good at giving things to people. But when you only give away things, you do not empower people.

At that point Bhalla had a very fuzzy idea about Rotary… “to me, Rotary in Australia was old men cooking sausages outside a shopping centre! I had no idea they did community service.” Kapadia told him his club had trained teachers and provided a library in a school which also needed toilets. Balla responded saying he had collected a few thousand Australian dollars from his small charity in Australia called We can’t wait, offered this to the Rotarian who said it “is a good beginning, but not enough. My club and district can put some more money but we need more, as we have to build 15 toilets because that one school has 500 kids.”

Kapadia suggested Balla approach some Rotary clubs in Australia and ask them if they’d like to support this project. The Australian spoke to a couple of Rotary clubs about his Indian experience, how his charity had raised some money, etc and some members of RC Box Hill Central said: “Wonderful; why don’t you join our club and let’s work on this together. I joined the club and within months we were applying for district grants and I was back in India later the same year to start the project.”

Teachers with Rotarians from Nashik and Australia at the Vidya Prashala Junior High School in Nashik.
Teachers with Rotarians from Nashik and Australia at the Vidya Prashala Junior High School in Nashik.

The first of the 15 toilets was inaugurated in March 2015 in the Nashik school.

Asked about the school in Dharavi, Balla says regretfully that he has not managed to help build toilets in that school. “It is difficult to work in a slum, space is a huge issue and getting permits is almost impossible. Permits are anyway a disaster.”

Returning to the Nashik school, Bhalla says the day the 15 toilets were inaugurated was “one of the best days of my life. It was a very emotional day.”

In all about $12,000 was raised by all the parties concerned; “it was a small project, but for me, coming from outside Rotary, this was a miracle.” For the inaugural some Australian Rotarians came to Nashik and “we had lots of selfies, signing of autographs, and of course cricket… there were 80 Indians in the slips and two Australians and we lost very quickly! They killed us!”

Bhalla returned to Australia, told his club members about the 15 toilets and “we knew we had got something special. So I went back to the Nashik club and said let’s do more; and we started doing global grants, which covered 5,000 children and seven schools.”

A TRF audio showed great results; a noticeable reduction in the absentee days of adolescent girls, an increase in their enrolment, some from nearby schools which didn’t have toilets.

After the grants were executed and TRF did an audit, “we got some great results. There was a noticeable reduction in the absentee days of adolescent girls and also an increase in enrolment of adolescent girls, some of them from nearby schools which didn’t have toilets. Incredibly, teenaged girls were actually returning to the education system.”

This was 2015; by now Balla had become a blue-blooded Rotarian and attended the Sao Paolo Convention where he addressed a WASRAG (Water and Sanitation Rotary Action Group) session and met PRID Sushil Gupta, who introduced him to PDGs Ramesh Aggarwal and Sharat Jain. “That was the beginning of another good conversation and project. We met in Delhi and decided to do three global grants.” The focus this time was to bring about a strong behaviour change and the Rotarians forged a strong partnership with World Vision to implement a two-year project in 11 schools. Its volunteers would go every week to the schools, and in January 2019, at one inaugural event “someone senior from the North Delhi Municipal Corporation was present. He said I’ve been watching this for two years, Rotary is such a serious community-based organisation and we love what you have done with these kids and we are going to copy it. But we will copy in 700 schools and reach 350,000 kids.”

Meeting with the child cabinet at a school in Delhi.
Meeting with the child cabinet at a school in Delhi.

Adds an exhilarated Balla: “This is the power of the Government and the power of Rotary… that we can have such an influence in our community.”

That project was in the planning and might have been put on hold thanks to the corona pandemic during which all of GoI’s energy and resources are diverted to dealing with this unprecedented crisis. “But the story here is the commitment and recognition of the good work of Rotary. It is so important for us to know that we can influence others.”

Even as the mega Delhi project was being executed, he started another project with PDG Ramesh Aggarwal’s club (RC Delhi Asoka), for which a third global grant for $254,000 was approved. The money has come from 25 clubs, six Rotary districts and seven countries, including the US, Australia, India, UK, New Zealand, DDF from several RI districts and even RC Chicago. This project for 19 schools involves building new toilets, repairing some old ones, beautification work, etc. “But the focus on 70 per cent of this project is on behaviour change as that is the most difficult bit,” he says.

Meanwhile Balla has forged partnerships to have small projects continuing in Nashik, Pune and even Ethiopia and began consultations for people working in Cambodia, Solomon Islands etc. He joined the board of WASRAG and is now its Vice Chair and also technical advisor to TRF’s Cadre working in WinS Target Challenge and was sent to Guatemala last year to do an assessment of the work being done there in this area.

How does Guatemala compare with India in implementing WinS and other projects, I ask him. Balla is candid in his response: “India has more opportunities to improve things and that is what makes working in India so exciting… it is much harder in poorer countries.”

At that point (2012), for me, Rotary in Australia was old men cooking sausages outside a shopping centre! I had no idea they did community service.

So how important was sustainability in the projects he has worked with in India?

Balla admits that “Rotary has so much more to learn about sustainability. We are not yet good at it; we are trying. But Rotary is still very good at giving things to people. But when you only give away things, you do not empower people. We need to do that.”

Asked if the schools they built earlier have adequate water supply, Balla says that in those days sustainability was not the mantra. “But we have now decided we will not work with schools which do not have easy access to water. I don’t want to work with schools unless the headmaster is extremely keen for help. We now have a school project in Nashik which is going to be spectacular; it will probably become the first school in the world to get a three-star rating.”

The ultimate objective, adds Balla, is to use the school and transform the community “to the point they feel they can no longer live without a toilet at home. This is deep transformational thinking that we’re talking about.”

Of course TRF has now started emphasising on sustainability; “and we are learning.” He attended a Sanitation Economy summit in Pune, a non-Rotary event which was very interesting, “and was mostly about supporting young vibrant social entrepreneurs and Rotary needs to become a serious player in helping them thrive. We have an opportunity here; we need to understand that with our average age, particularly in the west, we don’t have the vibrancy of a 23-year old social entrepreneur who is willing to take crazy risks. But these guys need help.”

When I learnt there were no toilets in that school it was like a brick hitting me in the head. It was like somebody saying in Australia that I have a house but it has no walls or a roof.

If you take Balla’s India scorecard, he began with 500 kids and about $2,000, if the corona pandemic had not come, by March 2020, he would have helped raise a million Australian dollars for projects in India and touched the lives of 100,000 kids.

Ask him about his dream and he says he wants to reach a million kids, and this can happen thanks to Rotary really connecting the world. He gives the example of a club he had addressed in the US through a video conference, and about six months later got a call from “them saying we really liked what you are doing in India and we are going to copy it in Guatemala. But that’s not really what I am calling you about.”

He was calling to tell Balla about sitting next to a Rotarian from another part of US; he shared the India story and later got a call from that Rotarian saying they were going to replicate the school project in Honduras. Balla who has now sold his business and is involved full time in voluntary work says, “This is the best job I’ve ever done in my life. These are the stories we hear; who knows how many more are out there. This is the magic of Rotary.”

He has put down his experience in building toilets in Indian school in a book titled Toilet Warrior which is priced at ₹500. He says the profit from the book — he expects around $30,000 — will go to TRF.

The book, published by Notion Press, Chennai, is available at https://notionpress.com/read/toilet-warrior

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