Odette Katrak clearly remembers the day in March 2020, which inspired her to start the StopIndiaSpitting campaign. The COVID-19 pandemic was in the news, there were guidelines being issued on washing hands with soap for 20 seconds, maintaining physical distance, and wearing masks. “We were hearing so much about practising good hygiene practices to stop the spread of COVID-19,” says Bengaluru-based Odette. “I happened to look out of the kitchen window while washing my hands and saw a man spitting. I realised that no one was talking about the connection between spitting and COVID-19.” She decided she had to do something about it.
Odette is no stranger to taking on seemingly impossible tasks. The 57-year-old is the co-founder of Beautiful Bharat, earlier known as Beautiful Bengaluru, a citizens’ initiative working to make public spaces cleaner and cities greener. This very same initiative played a role in making the Lal Bagh Flower Show a zero-litter event.
“We started Beautiful Bengaluru in 2015,” says Odette. “One of the first issues we tackled was the garbage generated at Lal Bagh during the flower show.” The flower show sees a footfall of between 5-8 lakh people and while there are litter bins placed everywhere, few used them, giving rise to mountains of plastic and trash. “We worked with the authorities and other stakeholders to bring awareness about the littering issue and change people’s mindsets,” says Odette. “And over the last six years, the flower show has become a zero-litter event.”
Seeing the man spitting outside her home on March 16, 2020, galvanised her on her new mission, to get the people of India to stop spitting in public. She, along with Beautiful Bharat, put together a petition to the Prime Minister of India, to make spitting in public spaces a punishable offense, especially in view of COVID-19. In a couple of weeks, they had more than 40,000 signatures for their petition. It didn’t stop there. They tweeted and wrote to officials, and kept highlighting the fact that spitting spreads diseases.
“We made a lot of noise about the issue and were instrumental in it becoming a national priority,” says Odette. “On April 15, no spitting was included in the COVID-19 preventive guidelines. And the PM mentioned spitting in his Mann Ki Baat speech in-mid April.” Spitting in public is now a finable offense.
Within minutes of speaking to Odette, her enthusiasm and passion to make her city and country a no-spitting zone is evident. She talks about how her experience as a behavioural specialist helped her to understand and address the issue of spitting. “A person wears a mask to prevent getting COVID-19, but lower the mask to spit and then put it back on to protect themselves from the virus.” She adds that people who spit clearly do not understand that spitting spreads disease. Creating awareness was the first step.
“Having worked on many successful large-scale interventions already,” says Odette. “I applied my understanding of how building awareness can make a difference.”
One of the first things the team did was conduct a survey in July 2020, asking people what they would do if they saw someone spitting on the street. “Whereas pre-COVID a majority turned the other way, 93% were now willing to get involved. So we made it easier for them by creating interesting campaign resources,” says Odette. Beautiful Bharat along with youngsters in the city reworked songs like ‘Imagine’ by The Beatles and ‘Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh’ to send a message against spitting. Odette provided the lyrics. They also put together a rap video in Kannada, animated videos in eight languages, and made creative videos featuring dogs among others to spread the message.
Beautiful Bharat and BBMP conduct joint-drive to stop spitting in public
They also brought in high-profile names like Dr Devi Shetty, Kannada actor Puneeth Rajkumar and Police Commissioner Kamal Pant to endorse their campaign. “We used everything we could to pull in this earlier taboo subject into daily conversations, and it's working,” says Odette.
Odette stresses that the movement has to keep going till public spitting stops completely. “Spitting was always an issue, but the pandemic has given an opportunity to address it,” says Odette. “Did you know spitting was popular in the west as well?” she asks. “It was tackled and stopped during the Spanish Influenza.” In fact, Odette reached out to The College of Physicians of Philadelphia to use an image from during the Spanish Flu, which features a tram that has a sign on it saying ‘Spit Spreads Death'.
She goes on to add that India is number one in Tuberculosis, which is another disease that can spread via spitting. India has the highest percentage of overall cases of TB worldwide at 37%. “People think this subject doesn't concern them because they don't spit,” says Odette. “But we all have to play a key role in awareness building.” She adds that the campaign name StopIndiaSpitting, itself is a call to action to get involved whether or not you spit.
To take the movement beyond Bengaluru, Beautiful Bharat, has joined hands with over 50 partners across the country — individuals as well as organisations like Hasirudala, Ellipses Marketing, Empower Pragati, and SpitFree India from Pune – to build a national movement. They have also teamed up with NGOs like Happy World Foundation, who share the videos and posters in rural areas to spread awareness about not spitting.
She urges people to do their bit by having conversations with habitual spitters and encouraging them to stop. And to put up posters and signs linking COVID-19 and spitting. “If everyone plays a small part, it can make a big difference and we can actually make COVID-19 a turning point to ease out this social menace once and for all,” says Odette. To learn more about this movement you can check beautifulbengaluru.org and access resources here.
All images courtesy Odette Katrak.