WASH at Festivals: Experiences from the Simhastha Mahakumbh and Glastonbury

WaterAid/Puneet Srivastava

Simhastha Kumbh Mela was a religious gathering that took place on the banks of the river Kshipra in the city of Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh from 22 April to 21 May 2016. Over 50,000,000 people were estimated to have attended the Mela in Ujjain over the month.

Given the huge influx of people over a relatively short period of time, a major challenge was to ensure that safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) would be accessible to all visiting pilgrims. WaterAid India (WAI) partnered with the Mela Organising Committee with the support of Ujjain Municipal Corporation and the Madhya Pradesh (MP) state government to ensure that WASH is a priority at the Simhastha 2016 through a range of interventions. The efforts for the Simhastha were part of a larger project by city administrators to achieve an Open Defecation Free (ODF) Ujjain by 2017.

The Glastonbury Festival is a five-day celebration of contemporary performing arts that takes place every year on Worthy Farms in England. Besides contemporary music, the festival features dance, comedy, theatre, circus, cabaret, and other performing arts. The festival is headlined by renowned pop and rock artists.

Puneet Srivastava is the Manager-Policy (Urban WASH, DRR and Climate Change) at WaterAid India. He was part of a team from WAI which provided technical support on sanitation to the Ujjain Municipal Corporation for the Simhastha Mahakumbh. Before Simhastha, a team from WaterAid UK along with the Glastonbury Festival Sanitation Manager visited Ujjain to experience WAI’s work at the mela. Pictures from the Simhastha and WAI’s efforts found their way into an exhibition at Glastonbury subsequently. Since 1994, WaterAid UK has been one of the three main charities associated with Glastonbury, alongside Greenpeace and Oxfam. The Loo with a View toilets, featured by WaterAid UK at Glastonbury 2015 were also replicated at the Simhastha, and received positively. Puneet went on to volunteer with WaterAid UK representing WAI at Glastonbury in June 2016. In this interview, Puneet recounts his experiences and learnings from both the festivals and how WASH is critical for such large festivals.

How did your journey to volunteering at Glastonbury Festival begin?

The whole idea behind volunteering for the Glastonbury Festival from WaterAid India was to learn about WASH challenges, which are complex in these kind of settings. I wanted to gain an experience of how to design and run a holistic WASH campaign after an intervention at the scale of the Mahakumbh. I wanted to learn more about innovative technologies that can be managed and run by the local people themselves here in India. Even before I went there, WAI replicated the Loo with a View toilets from the 2015 Glastonbury Festival which were very well received at the Ujjain Simhastha.

People wait outside loo with a view for their turn to use the toilet.
People wait outside loo with a view for their turn to use the toilet.

Can you give us an overview of your experiences and the role that volunteers from WaterAid played at Glastonbury?

We were around 450 volunteers from WaterAid, and its partners, as well as from different companies volunteering with WA UK. At the festival, we had interesting methods to engage with the fair attendees. We discouraged the use of bottled water, advocated tap water and reusable bottles, and set up 12-15 water refill points as well. I was volunteering at several of them during the festival.

The volunteer campsite at Glastobury. Photo: WaterAid/Puneet Srivastava
The volunteer campsite at Glastonbury. Photo: WaterAid/Puneet Srivastava

We also set up stalls for informing people of the Sustainable Development Goal 6 making a petition to the UK Government for an operational plan to achieve it in time. There were other interesting things like a potato-starch based biodegradable rain coat, and ‘she pees’ and ‘she wees’ which are camping sanitation devices which allow women to relieve themselves while standing. Then some fun collateral for sharing with the attendees like tattoos, badges, toilet shaped eyewear, toilet shaped Guitar GIFs (Graphic Interchange Format Images), postcards and so on. One of the more interesting exhibits onsite was a research model for generating energy from urine.

While the Loo with a View was a new concept that WaterAid UK had introduced in the 2015 Glastonbury, this year WA UK featured the Loo Crew. The festival also had Talking Toilets, where upon stepping in, the voice of a celebrity greeted you and spoke of sanitation and water challenges worldwide.

The loo crew at work during Glastonbury. Photo: WaterAid/Puneet Srivastava
The loo crew at work during Glastonbury. Photo: WaterAid/Puneet Srivastava

That sounds interesting. Can you tell us a bit more about the Loo Crew?

Well, we had over 200 dedicated volunteers besides the 450 volunteers charged with ensuring constant cleanliness and maintenance of the toilets at the festival. Providing toilets is one thing, but are you maintaining it well? That is a point we raised at the Ujjain Simhastha Mahakumbh as well. We need volunteers like the Loo Crew in India.

How was sanitation handled at the Glastonbury?

I believe there is a huge concern for the soil conditions and environment in the UK. When you visit Worthy Farms where the fest is held at any other time of the year, you wouldn’t know that this is the site of the world famous Glastonbury Festival. “Leave no Trace” is the approach adopted here.

There was a container based system here where all the sewage from the Long drop toilets would be collected, taken offsite, treated and composted. Now this is something that I want to see replicated in our big festivals too.

Talking Toilets and A Loo with a View at the Festival site. Photo: WaterAid/Puneet Srivastava
Talking Toilets and A Loo with a View at the Festival site. Photo: WaterAid/Puneet Srivastava

What do you feel are the differences in challenges in organising an event at the scale of Simhastha Mahakumbh in comparison to Glastonbury?

The idea behind most festivals is to be free of daily routine for a few days, and let one’s hair down. That remains the common aspect in festivals across the world. But when it comes to sanitation challenges, the only difference is India has a massive challenge with open defecation. Also the scale is different, Glastonbury hosts 2 lakh people, while an ordinary event in India hosts that many people. Simhastha Kumbh was estimated to have been attended by over 5 crore people. There were 2000 toilets in Glastonbury for instance. While at the Simhastha Mahakumbh there were between 18,000-20,000 toilets. The principles behind planning for sanitation will remain the same irrespective of the scale. I feel that from a planning perspective, we need to think about developing some norms and guidelines around sanitation, water supply, bathing facilities for such large congregations or festivals in India.

Also, the nature of the event itself. Glastonbury is ticketed as you had said, while Simhastha has a free floating crowd and a visitor estimate.

Yes, Glastonbury is a premium event. I have been told tickets sell out in the first ten minutes when the counters open. This helps plan the event better, but does not change the sanitation challenges which still remain similar to an event on a greater scale such as the Mahakumbh.

What do you feel are ideas that could be replicated from Glastonbury in public gatherings and festivals in India?

I would definitely love to see the Loo Crew concept brought to India. Then, they also had mobile showers with hot water which were very nice. The handwashing facilities were across the fair, and the use of sanitisers was common. The kind of attendees at both festivals vary in economic background and awareness levels even though the sanitation challenges are the same. I feel we need to move to a zero waste, zero trace model like at Glastonbury eventually.

Besides replicating what you saw at Glastonbury, were there any instances of learnings at Simhastha being used by WaterAid UK in turn?

While WaterAid India was discussing the need for volunteers at Simhastha to maintain the toilets, there were parallel discussions in WaterAid UK which formed the origin of the Loo Crew. Like the Loo with a View last year, the Loo Crew was the novelty element from WaterAid UK at the festival.

And how was their approach? We were talking about how it is often difficult to get people to approach sanitation in public gatherings here in India positively.

We have to break the ‘Yuck Factor’ among people here in India. At Glastonbury I felt that the volunteers also had better infrastructure apart from awareness to engage safely with maintaining sanitation issues at the festival. But here in India, we lack the infrastructure too, and very often the poorer sections of the society, like manual scavengers end up handling sewage.

Has there been any positive response after WaterAid India’s intervention at the Simhastha Mahakumbh?

We did receive a call from the authorities behind the Puri Jagganath Rath Yatra in Odisha for technical support on sanitation. But because of a short lead time, we could not take it up. The other festival we may consider intervening in the future is the fair that comes up around the Ganesh Temple in Ranthambore, Rajasthan. The authorities are planning to come up with sustainable technologies for sanitation there. As a result of work with the Simhastha Mahakumbh, our work with the Ujjain City Municipal Corporation has also deepened. We are currently involved with assisting the municipal corporation with the larger interventions in a monitoring, planning and implementation role. There are some direct intervention bastis we are monitoring with the aid of sanitary supervisors. We are also involved with providing guidance on the kind of sanitation technology that suit the city based on its geological terrain and water availability. There are some wards in which we work to mobilise and create awareness, and in some others we carry out education on hygiene issues. The overall goal is to help Ujjain in its goal to achieve Swacch Bharat Mission (Urban) goals, and become ODF by 2017.

Do you feel it will be possible to mobilise people for the Loo Crew kind of volunteer initiatives at festivals in the coming years?

I think with the current sanitation efforts on across the country, we should hopefully generate some interest amongst the youth and engage at least some of them on the sanitation agenda.

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