Use soap, never mind if it pollutes water

One would need to believe it to be true as the decade-old handwashing campaign has relentlessly argued that washing hands with soap reduces the incidence of diarrheal diseases by more than 40 per cent. Using such unsubstantiated claims are host of multinational personal care companies that have leveraged the presence of agencies like UNICEF to declare Oct 15 as the Global Handwashing Day.

Unlike last year when 15,115 people in Chennai created a Guinness World Record for ‘most people washing hands at one location’, over 200 million children and parents in 80 countries are expected to soap up for the third Global Handwashing Day this year.
Initiated by the World Bank, the handwashing campaign has been sponsored by entrenched interests in Procter & Gamble, Hindustan Lever and Colgate Palmolive. For each of these soap makers, handwashing as a cornerstone of public health offers a win-win situation to explore the hitherto unexplored rural market.

Eye on rural market

For instance, under its ‘Swasthya Chetna’ programme Hindustan Lever has been working towards effecting handwashing behaviour change among the rural communities it touches. The company is investing $5 million to capture the rural market through the message: ‘visibly clean is not really clean’.

Does soap make the hands ‘really clean’? The proponents of the handwashing campaign quote a 2005 research paper published in British medical journal ‘Lancet’ to justify the effectiveness of soap as a cleansing agent. However, the results have been contested because not only was the research project sponsored by Procter & Gamble, one of the six authors have been an employee of the same company as well. The conflict of interest has been clearly evident.

Despite technical flaws, there is no let down in the campaign to transform handwashing from an abstract idea to an automatic behaviour.

After all, for the sponsoring companies there is a soap market worth over $10 billion on offer in the developing world. From Ghana to Peru and from Malawi to Indonesia, the world has been forced to believe that ‘your hands are only truly clean if washed with soap”.

That extensive use of soap leaves surface water sources polluted has been grossly ignored. Further, it does no good to 884 million across the world and over 128 million in India  who are in search of safe drinking water on a daily basis. The unquestionable faith in use of soap to stay clear of contagious diseases returns to haunt the poor through unsafe water supplies.

It is a Catch-22 situation.

Promotion of soap as the ‘only’ option to stay ‘clean’ undermines indigenous knowledge, indigenous biodiversity and indigenous economies by destroying the indigenous systems of non-chemical, non-polluting natural products like shikakai, neem, tamarind, etc. Across the country, many such herbal products and traditional techniques have helped communities stay clean till this day.

The uncontested handwashing campaign not only undervalues such knowledge but uses the ‘politics of knowledge’ to determine how research can be legitimised into action. By re-balancing ‘know-what (meaning technical knowledge) and ‘know-how’ (meaning the power to use knowledge), the scale has been tilted towards the interests of elites and away from the decisions that promote development as social transformation.

(The writer works for the Ecological Foundation, Delhi)

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