This Australian Man Is Fighting To Keep India’s Girls In Schools

This Australian Man Is Fighting To Keep India’s Girls In Schools

A brief visit to Mumbai’s Dharavi slum showed Australian businessman Mark Balla how a lack of toilets in schools was causing little girls to drop out. Since then, this Swachh Warrior has built over 100 toilets for girls in schools across Maharashtra
Swachh Warriors
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Mark Balla's organisation We Can't Wait has already built over 100 toilets in several Nashik schools
Highlights
  • Lack of toilets for girls in school had an impact of Balla
  • Girls unable to continue with education due to lack of toilets
  • Balla has already built over 100 toilets in many schools in Nashik

During his first visit to Mumbai in 2012, Australian businessman Mark Balla was taken to Dharavi by two of his Indian friends, Faheem Vohra and Tauseef Siddiqui. Balla, a frequent visitor to India for business purposes, hadn’t travelled to this part of India before. The two young residents of Dharavi wanted Mark to take a look at how life was in one of Asia’s largest slums.

Little did they, or Balla himself know that this trip would change his life.

While Balla went in expecting squalor ad dejection, what he saw in Dharavi was enterprise. With a population of a million people, the slum had industry, temples, playgrounds and schools. The socio-cultural ambience under which people were leading their daily lives was something which pleased Balla. The usual Indian hospitality was found in abundance as Balla roamed around Dharavi, its homes and schools. However, he was quick to notice one glaring discrepancy.

When I was walking around the schools in Dharavi, I came across a number of teenage boys but noticed that there were no teenage girls. When I asked them the reason for this, I was told that it was because there were no toilets for girls in the schools, said Balla.

That was a turning point in Mark Balla’s life.

Lack of toilets for girls in schools has been a serious problem in India, and a major cause for girls dropping out. A report published by the Ministry of Human Resources Development, titled ‘Elementary Education in India’ stated that in 2012-13, 47 per cent schools in India did not have separate toilets for girls. 47.9 per cent girls dropped out of schools by the time they reached Class X. Lack of proper sanitation facilities for girls often resulted in unsafe situations for them, as they had to defecate in the open and often became victims of violence. Overall enrolment of girls from classes 1 to 5 came down to 48.20 per cent in 2014, compared to 48.36 per cent in 2013. The statistics highlighted the plight of girls going to school and the premature dropout rates, which affected Balla greatly.

A newly constructed toilet in a school at Nashik
A newly constructed toilet in a school at Nashik

In 2013, at the World Toilet Summit in Sukarta, Indonesia, Balla spoke in length about the sanitation plight of girls in Indian schools. The lack of toilets in school not only resulted in their dropping out early, but contributed towards a lesser literacy rate among girls when compared to boys. Girls who discontinued with their education due to lack of toilets were also married off by the age of 14 or 15.

The best, and only way to address this issue was to equip schools with more toilets for girls and Mark decided to begin work for his ambitious project of installing toilets in Indian schools for girls. Balla went back to Australia and founded the charity ‘We Can’t Wait’ to create further awareness and raise funds for his project.

It was at New English School, Vihitgaon, in Maharashtra’s Nashik that Balla’s dream and tenuous hard work finally paid off, as the construction of fifteen toilets was completed in 2014. Girls who would not come to school frequently had started to come back, as they now had access to hygienic and functioning toilets.

Once we raised adequate money from fundraisers, we started working right away. The Rotary Club of Nashik helped us in this endeavor. We built a long toilet bloc for the school and three days after it opened, girls started coming back to school as they now had access to clean and separate toilets for themselves, said Balla on his first project of toilet building in India.

After that first project, there was no looking back.

Students walk past the new constructed toilet bloc at a Nashik school
Students at the new constructed toilet bloc at a Nashik school

Since 2014, Balla’s charitable organisation has built over 100 toilets in 7 schools in Nashik and is on the course of building 100 more by the end of 2017.

The journey for Mark Balla has of course, not been easy. From difficulty in collecting funds to facing bureaucratic hurdles to lack of information, Balla and his co-workers have been through them all. The biggest problems they have faced have been the lack of proper statistics on schools lacking toilets and an apathy towards toilet construction in school premises.

When we were searching for beneficiary schools, we were astonished to find that even many newly constructed schools did not have toilets for the students. Even some school authorities were averse to the idea of toilets as that meant requisitioning staff for cleaning and maintenance. The Education Officer of the Zilla Parishad could not provide details of the schools which did not have toilets. School and village authorities wanted the toilets to be built in invisible areas of their premises, said Firdaus Kapadia, ex-President, Rotary Club of Nashik, who collaborated with Balla on several projects of toilet construction.

Though the recent efforts of the Union Government to build toilets as a part of the Swachh Bharat Mission has been helpful in increasing awareness surrounding the necessity of toilets, there is a long way to go before all schools are equipped with toilets. Grants provided by the government to construct toilets are not sufficient, and there is still no provision of penalizing schools which are without toilets.

Balla at a Nashik school with students
Balla at a Nashik school with students

Brick and cement toilets being constructed by us from overhead water tank to septic tank and soak pit cost a minimum of Rs. 50000 per unit whereas the government grants are usually for Rs. 10-12000 per unit. These grants are based on one toilet for 80 students without realizing the simple fact that 80 students cannot use one toilet in their recess which is usually of 30-45 minutes. We have fixed a ratio of one toilet for every 20 girls and one for every 30 boys so that all students get the opportunity to use these toilets and take this habit home. The rural infrastructure needs to be strengthened before open defecation is defeated, added Firdaus.

Balla remains optimistic about his work and says that the government is trying to bring proper sanitation and drinking water facilities for school students. He shares a similar vision of a cleaner India where school students have access to proper sanitation facilities.

Efforts by the government of India are already bringing massive benefit in terms of access to sanitation and clean water to the children of India. My wish is that the work we started three years ago will be the catalyst for reaching at least one million children in India by the time of Gandhi’s 150th birthday in 2019, said an optimistic Mark Balla.

Also Read: To Build 100 Toilets A Woman In Chhattisgarh Mortgages Her Jewellery

5 Comments

  1. Great job Mr.Mark Balla,may God bless you with a long and happy life.

  2. What a shame that not one Indian businessman or government leader or minister during more than half a century of India being independent, did not even attempt to do what this Australian businessman has done for Indian girls to have basic needs met! He now should make all the Indians in every government and business management positions hang their heads in shame for not doing for their country what a foreigner had to do because he had a conscience that they did not have for years!

    1. Google how many celebrities, sports persons and ordinary people are working for this before throwing a rant.

  3. Why is India the dirtiest country in the world? Because India is ruled by the most corrupt, most selfish, mostly rogues on earth! That is why this Australian man had to come all the way from Australia to do this!

  4. And we make amita bachan as ambassador what a shame

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