There are few countries more appropriate to host an exhibition on innovative toilet solutions than India. With 50 per cent of the population practising open defecation and diarrhoea the leading cause of child deaths, the need for sustainable sanitation is acute. Ahead of India’s hosting of this month’s Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Reinvent the Toilet Fair, we meet a man who gave up a life many Indians strive for to provide ‘awesome toilet services’ for the urban poor.
Pune, India // By birth, upbringing and education, Swapnil Chaturvedi was not meant to clean toilets for a living.
Yet when a child running through the narrow alleys of a Pune slum calls out to him in Marathi: “Hey toilet guy!”, Mr Chaturvedi is not offended or ashamed. Instead he laughs and stoops to ruffle the girl's hair, before resuming his journey to the nearby toilet block his company operates.
“The kids all call me toilet guy,” he says. “I like it. It shows that they know what I’m trying to achieve here.”
The 37-year-old Indian was born into the Brahmin pillar of Hindu society, an esteemed social caste typically formed of scholars, artists, priests and business people. A privileged education culminated overseas at Northwestern University in Chicago, the city where he worked in IT and settled into a comfortable suburban life with his wife and young daughter.
Four years ago - to the dismay of his father - the self-confessed rebel decided his destiny lay along a path less in keeping with India’s rigid caste system.
He returned to his country of birth to pursue a goal of improving the wretched state of public toilets in urban slums. He hoped that access to clean toilets would address levels of open defecation in India, which, according to UNICEF, is practised by 638 million people - roughly half the population. The practice - caused by a combination of habit brought into cities from rural areas and lack of access to adequate sanitation - leads to microbial contamination of water that causes potentially fatal diarrhoea in children.
Mr Chaturvedi states a simple mission goal: “to provide awesome toilet services for the urban poor”. He proudly displays a business card designating himself President and CEO of Samagra Waste Management on one side, and ‘Poop Guy’ on the other.
“An awesome toilet service is one where you want to go, not need to go,” says the company’s self-appointed ‘chief toilet cleaner’.
Samagra, the company he runs with his wife and small team of staff, operates three toilet blocks serving 3,300 daily users in two slums in Pune. The company takes over municipal-run public toilet blocks and introduces larger windows for ventilation, proper plumbing, wash basins for hand-washing, bins in women’s toilets for discarded sanitary pads, improved electric lighting, and, most importantly, regular cleaning and maintenance.
These changes rid the toilets of the foul stench and filth that made them almost unusable to slum inhabitants. Women had the dire choice between a using an unhygienic toilet or facing the indignity- or even danger - of relieving themselves in open.
The company earns revenue from toilet users’ monthly payments (INR50 per family per month) and through an innovative rewards scheme that allows users to earn vouchers that can be exchanged for locally-made products such as sweets, toiletries and sanitary pads. Mr Chaturvedi says he has received a $100,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and is applying for added funding.
Sitting with his six-year-old daughter Urvi on a low wall outside a Samagra toilet block, Mr Chaturvedi reflects on why he gave up the comforts of US life to pursue a profession that receives little respect in Indian society.
“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. Everything we do is inspired by her.
“The most visceral feedback we get is from families with teenage daughters. They tell me ‘you have made our lives better. You have made life so convenient and so dignified for our daughters’. My daughter will be a teenager in six to eight years. 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.”
Mr Chaturvedi has lofty ambitions for Samagra and hopes long-term success will inspire a culture of entrepreneurship in India’s sanitation sector. He aims to reach 45,000 daily users by the end of 2014 and operate 25 toilet blocks in collaboration with Pune Municipal Corporation.
“The personal goal of my life is that before I turn 40 I want to reach one million daily users,” he says. “It will create a wave of entrepreneurs in the sanitation sector who would each in turn want to reach one million daily users. That’s the only way we can solve this problem. I alone can’t do it.”
In fact, he is not alone. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is bringing its 2nd Reinvent the Toilet Fair to India this month. The event showcases various designs of waterless toilets funded through Foundation grants. One of its key aims is to promote innovative solutions to global sanitation issues.
“We can live without Facebook, we can live without smartphones, but we can’t live without relieving ourselves,” Mr Chaturvedi points out. “It’s a daily natural activity. Then why such a taboo around it? We should talk about it openly and we should do something about it.”
- India is home to 638 million people defecating in the open; over 50 per cent of the population.
- Sixty seven per cent of Indian households do not treat their drinking water, even though it could be chemically or bacterially contaminated.
- Diarrhoea and respiratory infections are the number one cause for child deaths in India.
- Diarrhoea and worm infection are two major health conditions that affect school age children impacting their learning abilities.