“What would you do if you saw someone spit on the street?” asks Odette Katrak, the 57-year old co-founder of Beautiful Bharat, a citizen-led movement. This was the question that she and her team took to more than 750 respondents across the country via a survey they conducted in July 2020.
“While most respondents said they would walk away or turn a blind eye pre-COVID-19 days, things are different now. Ninety-three per cent said that they would ask the person to stop, explaining that spitting spreads covid,” she says.
“This was great validation for us to take the Stop India Spitting campaign further and make it a mass movement,” she says.
Besides launching the national #StopIndiaSpitting campaign, the erstwhile behaviour change consultant is using her training to bring about a systemic social change in the mindset of many.
It all started in 2009 when Odette was a resident of Gurgaon. Speaking to The Better India, she says, “One evening, as my daughter was bouncing her ball and playing, it came back to her hand feeling wet and slimy. She realised that the ball had bounced on a blob of spit on the pavement. Seeing the disgust and revulsion on my daughter’s face left an indelible mark on me.”
“That was the genesis of starting the #StopIndiaSpitting campaign years later,” she says.
In March 2020, just as the lockdown was announced, the #StopIndiaSpitting campaign came alive.
Spitting: A punishable offence
As India went under its first national lockdown in March 2020, Odette recollects standing in her kitchen, over the sink, furiously washing her hands. “It was the time when we were told to wash and sanitize our hands as regularly as we could,” she says. As she looked out of her kitchen window, she saw a man spit on the street below. That is when it hit her that while extra precautions were being taken to fight COVID-19, no one was addressing the problem of spitting.
Odette immediately reached out to her Beautiful Bengaluru WhatsApp group, which was started in 2016, where everyone agreed that spitting must also be addressed as a measure to curb the spread of COVID-19.
“We took out a petition the same day to the Prime Minister which got 41,333 signatures in two weeks. That along with an open letter requesting the PM speak about the issue in his next Mann Ki Baat ensured that the subject became a national priority. The PM spoke about this in his Mann Ki Baat on 26 April,” says Odette.
Spitting became a punishable offence under the Disaster Management Act on 15 April 2020.
Dr Tushar Sahasrabudhe, Professor Department of Respiratory Medicine, Dr DY Patil Medical College, Pimpri, Pune, says, “The role of spitting in disease transmission, especially tuberculosis (TB), COVID-19 and other respiratory infections, must be understood by every citizen. National TB Elimination Programme (NTEP) focuses on early case detection and free treatment. COVID-19 control strategy additionally focuses on the use of masks and other PPEs. However, what needs to be focused on is breaking the disease transmission chain. The best way to do the same is strictly preventing public spitting and following cough etiquettes. Change in social behaviour is the key to success.”
A waste to be expelled?
It took Odette a while to understand why people who spat in public chose to do so. “I began from a place of anger. I would question people who spat and realised over time that many of them considered spitting a right. They believed that saliva, just like urine and excreta, was something that had to be expelled,” she says.
The biggest challenge for the volunteers was to explain that swallowing spit was natural. “Saliva contains a digestive enzyme, called amylase, which is good for digestion. By spitting we are expelling the good enzyme and that is what we are trying to create awareness about – worse that it is spreading disease,” she says.
Renowned cardiologist Dr Devi Shetty, Chairman and Executive Director of Narayana Health, and a campaign partner, has endorsed the campaign with a video appeal in which he says, “Spitting is a very dangerous habit. Aside from spreading COVID-19, it can also lead to the spread of TB amongst other viral diseases. People should be stopped from spitting to ensure that the lives of others are saved.”
Odette and her team use social media very effectively to create awareness about this ignored issue and spread the word about the campaign.
Together with the campaign partners (NGOs, educational institutions, civic bodies etc), much work is being done on education and awareness building. Odette and her team also realised that unless there is a fear of enforcement, behaviour change tends to be difficult. To this effect, the group has been trying to get the attention of the authorities on this menace.
An organic campaign
What’s also very interesting to note is how Odette and her team have built a very successful movement with absolutely no external funding. “This has always been a voluntary movement and the members and campaign partners are the ones who have been driving it with their sheer desire to make India ‘spit free’,” says Odette.
Ahana Sur, a student of Class 12 at The Shri Ram School Aravali, Gurgaon, says, “I volunteered to show my support for this campaign since it is important for us to be aware of various factors that come into play in the spread of COVID-19. While we are fully aware of practices like social distancing, wearing our masks and washing our hands, we need to focus on an additional practice that is more relevant to the Indian population.”
Ahana also contributed to this campaign by designing an animated video on the importance of curbing public spitting. This video has been translated into five regional languages, which include Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, Marathi and Bengali. Furthermore, the videos are now being used by various NGOs and government bodies to create awareness. Ahana says, “It feels great to know that something I created has the potential to positively impact so many lives even if it is in such a small manner. Hopefully, by curtailing spitting during this global health crisis, we can promote healthier and more hygienic behaviours.”
Odette’s passion to make a difference is palpable in every conversation one has with her. So much so, that the campaign has spread way beyond just India. “A resident of Kenya who happened to attend a webinar we had organised was so taken in by the concept that he has now started the StopKenyaSpitting movement! I am in constant touch with him, advising him on the steps to set it all up,” she says.
Odette ends, “Every citizen who does not spit has a key role to play in spreading awareness and we hope every reader will play a role, share our posters,videos and have conversations that can make covid a turning point for spitting in India!”
Anyone interested to access videos, posters can follow them on social media or mail email@example.com or access the content they periodically publish by visiting www.beautifulbengaluru.org.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)