Using bathroom humor to try to improve India’s rural sanitation

BY Ruth Tam  April 18, 2014 at 3:46 PM EST

It will take all of three seconds to recognize UNICEF India’s recent “Take The Poo To The Loo” is not your average public service announcement.

The Indian government and private aid groups have struggled with the country’s rural sanitation for years. UNICEF India’s video campaign is an attempt to curb public defecation — by employing a catchy song. In it, a man is awakened by the need to have a bowel movement and is chased by an army of excrement until he builds them a bejeweled latrine. All this to a four-minute long flatulence-themed bass line and a toilet flush melody.

According to UNICEF India, the song was produced by Indian composer Shri, who is known for his contributions to the 2012 film “Life of Pi.” The video appears to be the organization’s latest in their campaign to end open defecation, which according to the CBC, results in 72,000 tons of human waste a day.

In 2012, the BBC reported that just under half of India’s 246.6 million households had toilets leaving 49.8 percent to defecate in the open. While some of UNICEF India’s previous videos have framed this as an affront to female dignity, it is more pressing public health issue.

Disposing of feces in the open leave the most vulnerable, especially children, at a high risk of microbial contamination which causes diarrhea. According to UNICEF India, “children weakened by frequent diarrhea episodes are more vulnerable to malnutrition and opportunistic infections such as pneumonia.” Chronic malnutrition can also stunt educational opportunities, the organization’s website reads.

The video has soared well over the channel’s other education and health-themed videos with over 77,000 views. It might be good for a laugh but what will it do to actually stem open defecation? Probably not much. But UNICEF India has also tried mobilizing village women to encourage household sanitation and other organizations have also stepped in.

In 2011, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded 16 researchers to engineer a safe and sustainable solution to human waste. Project designs included collapsible and solar powered toilets. There was even a toilet that transformed human waste into a “charcoal-like product” for cooking fuel or fertilizer.

There are many more researchers who have dedicated themselves to the dirty business of revamping India’s sanitation system. It might not be the most glamorous job in the world but UNICEF India’s crazy video will keep trying to prove you otherwise.