Updated: Jul 1, 2021
India has a huge problem with open defecation. Faced with the option of using filthy public toilets or none at all, over 500 million people regularly relieve themselves outside, according to the last census in 2015.
The problem is complicated and involves India's caste (class) system and negative association with working in sanitation. That task has traditionally been left to the Dalits, or "untouchables", people considered outside of society and below the four main castes in India.
As such, the four main castes view maintaining, cleaning or constructing toilets as a shameful occupation. This has led to outdoor defecation, which leads to a host of sanitary and security issues. Girls and women are often at risk of sexual harassment, and after puberty, women and girls lack a hygienic, private space to manage their menstruation.
Step forward the ‘Poop Guy’, who by birth, upbringing and education was not meant to run a toilet service. Swapnil Chaturvedi was born into the elite Brahmin caste and had a privileged education that culminated at Northwestern University in Chicago.
Our film production:
Yet Mr Chaturvedi gave up his green card and now proudly calls himself Chief Toilet Cleaner at Samagra Waste Management, the company he runs in the Indian city of Pune with his wife and small team of staff. His mission is to provide "awesome toilet services" for the urban poor - toilets that are clean, properly lit, well-ventilated, regularly maintained and fitted with plumbing and wash basins.
To generate revenue, Samagra charges toilet users INR50 (US$0.67) per family per month and allows subscribers to earn vouchers that can be exchanged for locally-made goods, from which Samagra takes a small margin.
Mandolin Media was tasked with producing a short film that covered Samagra’s business model and the improvements it makes to state-run toilet blocks. The key aim of the film, however, was to convey Mr Chaturvedi’s underlying desire to improve facilities for female resident’s of India’s slums.
Sitting with his six-year-old daughter Urvi outside a Samagra toilet block, Mr Chaturvedi says:
“If someone asks me why I started this business, there is only one reason - for women’s dignity. And that goes back to me being the father of a girl child. I imagine ‘what if she was living here?’ I want to ensure women and girls here have the kind of service I would expect her to have.”
The three-day shoot took Mandolin Meida to multiple Samagra toilet blocks throughout the slum areas of Pune.
Each location was not without its challenges - incessant car honking, crowds of people gathering every time the team pulled out a camera, children darting about on rooftops to cast shadows on our interview subjects - even the slum drunkard threatening to throw bricks at us unless we gave him money.
But thanks to Mr Chaturvedi and his Samagra colleagues the team captured fantastic footage of daily life in the slum and were introduced to many young women whose lives have improved through the provision of clean toilets.
Our favourite part of the shoot was following Mr Chaturvedi through the narrow alleys of a Pune slum as he greeted children and families. Each seemed to have a story - a young girl who inspired Samagra to offer bank account services to its subscribers, a family who were the first users of a Samagra toilet, a husband and wife who lived beyond walking distance of the main Samagra toilet block so commissioned Samagra to attach a single toilet cubicle to their house.
One of the most complex tasks was to portray the practice of open defecation and its impact on hygiene within the slum, but without actually showing open defecation. The team chose to focus on the use of water in the slum - for washing, drinking, cleaning - as Mr Chaturvedi explained that contamination of water sources due to open defecation causes thousands of fatal diarrhoea cases among children.
The overriding memory of the project was one of admiration for Mr Chaturvedi - a man who brought his family to India from a comfortable life in the US and defied the wishes of his father to start a business in sanitation. His sole aim is to bring dignity to people as they perform our most natural daily act - one not all of us are able to do in clean and comfortable surroundings.