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When washroom is long walk away
Over 1,500 give leg-up to call for school sanitation

Rituparna Sengupta releases a balloon before the start of the United Way Walk Kolkata Walk 2013, in association with The Telegraph and presented by United Technologies, at Rabindra Sarobar on Sunday morning. “Women’s sanitation is one of the most important things in schools. Ensuring proper security for women is the need of the hour. These walks should have been organised long before… but this is a good start. These walks should be conducted more often,” said the Tollywood star.

Toddlers and teenagers walked side by side. The elderly turned up, too. So did entrepreneurs and corporate bigwigs. Some strode their way on stilts, some rode bicycles and a few came piggybacking on their parents’ shoulders.

Calcutta stretched its legs on Sunday morning and took a walk — to make a statement and put its best foot forward for a cause: basic rights of school-going girls in Bengal.

People from all age groups and various walks of life lined up by the Rabindra Sarobar lake and joined the United Way Walk Kolkata Walk 2013, in association with The Telegraph and presented by United Technologies.

An encouraging turnout of over 1,500 enthusiastic walkers covered a 3km route from the lake and back via Sarat Bose Road, Deshapriya Park, Lake View Road and Southern Avenue.

The walk was organised to raise awareness about sanitation problems faced by girls in public schools across Bengal, which has led to thousands of dropouts. “Many schools across the state do not have basic usable toilets for girls and they often have to go outdoors where human and non-human problems lurk behind the bushes,” said Aniruddha Lahiri, the founding board member of United Way of Kolkata, who led the walk.

From 6.30am, barely half an hour after sunrise and a good two hours prior to the walk, the participants started trickling in through the gate opposite Menoka cinema. Some wrapped in mufflers, some in windcheaters and most in sneakers.

By 7am, the registration desk was full of people waiting to fill in their names and put on the special T-shirts and caps distributed to the participants. “We are here to support the cause. It is not a shame for women but all of society if we cannot provide these basic facilities to our girls,” said Roopen Roy, managing director-consulting, Deloitte, who was among the first to turn up with wife Rupa Debi.

Chhau dancers, brought in from Purulia, and stilt-walkers from Burdwan rehearsed at one end of the lawn by the lake. Enthusiastic schoolchildren were engaged in debates on who walks the fastest. The regular morning walkers studiously performed their routine stretches, while the late risers tried to yawn away the leftover sleep with a steaming cup of tea.

At 8.30am, the walkers hit the road after two hot-air balloons were released by Tollywood star Rituparna Sengupta. The US consul general in Calcutta, Helen LaFave, joined the children and walked alongside.

“I enjoyed a lot. How can I not have fun taking a walk on a Sunday morning with all kinds of energy and children around me. It was terrific. We are happy with the turnout. We are sure it would get bigger and better every year. I hope awareness would be spread among people,” LaFave told Metro as she egged the children on.

Rituparna, who travelled in a 91.9 Friends FM tableau-cum-radio station, gave a live interview during the walk. “Ensuring proper security for women is the need of the hour. Hygiene is the most important. I have come to participate in it to spread the message among people,” she said.

As the actress, perched on the tableau and visible to all the walkers, started the live interview, many whipped their mobile phones out, plugged in the earphones, tuned in to the station and walked listening to her encouraging words.

“I want to win the race.” Four-year-old Julius's message was loud and clear. He came with his parents and sister from Garia.

And so did Aniruddha Lahiri and Debjani Roychowdhury of United Way, who cheered the line-up of walkers with an encouraging commentary. “I hope we have been able to raise awareness through the walk and will keep working to have sanitary blocks constructed across all the schools in the state,” Lahiri said.

Children from South City International School, The Heritage School, Ballygunge Shiksha Sadan School and several other Calcutta institutions turned up in large numbers with banners and slogans. “Make the world a better place for us to live in.” One of the banners said.

The 150m-long line of walkers meandered through the roads and lanes of residential south Calcutta, drawing people to their windows and doorsteps. Many enjoying their morning tea on verandahs overlooking the roads thought it was a procession.

But claps, not complaints, greeted the motley crowd.

“Feels as if I’m in a queue to enter a big Durga Puja pandal,” said Sumesh Dugar, a 25-year-old tech entrepreneur who had come with friend Devansh Bhotika.

Birthday girl Neela Mazumdar, who works for Earth Day, an NGO, was up at 6am and at the lakeside by 7am with her friends. “I am delighted to celebrate my birthday by supporting a noble cause and do my bit to raise awareness,” she said.

The hour-long walk ended at Rabindra Sarobar at 9.30am. Refreshments were served, camaraderie shared, selfies taken and they headed back home — happy with the hope that this Sunday morning could help usher in a new dawn.

A dozen members of Ride 2 Breathe, promoting cycling in Calcutta, brought up the rear. “The cause is very close to our heart. Proper toilets in schools are a must. Cycling is important too. It is eco-friendly and good for your health,” said Gautam Shroff (second from right), drawing a round of applause.
“I have two daughters and I want them to feel absolutely safe in this city. They should be able to work towards their goal without hindrances,” said Yang Yin Mae from Moulali, posing proudly with her daughters and son after the walk. Aniruddha Lahiri, the founding board member of United Way of Kolkata, and wife Ratna were overwhelmed by the response. “Many schools across the state do not have basic usable toilets for girls and they often have to go outdoors where human and non-human problems lurk behind the bushes,” he said. “Since the cause is so genuine, I was more than convinced to promote this event. The response is really good,” Ratna said.
“We are walking for women’s empowerment. It is so much fun. We are amazed to see so many people turning up to support the cause. It is a brilliant atmosphere,” said Alice Thomson (left) who, along with Kat Suddaby, is a volunteer for Future Hope Foundation. These Yorkshire girls have been in Calcutta for the past six months. “The problem of sanitation is a shame for society. It is our collective responsibility to address this problem,” said Roopen Roy, managing director-consulting, Delloitte. He participated in the walk with wife Rupa.
Stilt walkers added colour to the cause. “It is a noble cause and the spirit of volunteerism has brought us here. Siddharth went to bed early so that he could wake on time for the walk,” said Rajiv Pujara, managing director of an American healthcare firm. Son Siddharth is a Class V student at La Martiniere for Boys.
Businessman Navin Gupta, who runs an NGO, said he often brings daughter Akanksha, a Class III student of Mahadevi Birla World Academy, to such walks because “kids should be involved in such activities for all-round personality development”. His efforts weren’t lost. Akanksha understood the “cause of Sunday’s walk” — “every school toilet should have a bucket, a mug, a soap and adequate water. It should be clean....” And young walkers tuned in to 91.9 Friends FM to catch Rituparna’s live commentary from the radio van.

Text by Ratnalekha Mazumdar & Raya Ghosh, pictures by Sayantan Ghosh & Amit Datta