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World Toilet Day: Create Demand, Ensure Supply, But Also Change Mindsets Around Toilet Usage

19/11/2016 9:03 AM IST | Updated 19/11/2016 3:10 PM IST
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A resident walks away after cleaning a toilet block, recently built by villagers with support from Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, in Korali village, Haryana, India, on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Reclining on a charpoy soaking up the winter sun is Mr Choudhury, a respected landlord in the village of Samastipur close to Patna. His intense conversation on the mobile phone is interrupted by our team on a field trip to understand sanitation practices in Bihar. After a tour of his house, he digs out a set of keys and leads us outside his courtyard towards a toilet, freshly painted in purple and green. We wonder if the toilet is locked to safe guard it from trespassers or prevent animals from walking in? But our hypotheses is proven wrong as the door of the toilet opens. The sunlight streaming through a labyrinth of cobwebs reveals a stack of gunny bags, construction materials and household equipment piled up to the roof. On being asked why the toilet was being used as a store room, Mr. Choudhury explains that he was always reluctant to build one as it is not good to have a toilet in the same premise as the kitchen. However, tempted by the Government subsidy of ₹12,000 he got one built, but he and his family still prefer going to the fields for their daily business.

Our next stop is a government school in urban Delhi where we are enthused to see a series of toilets, separate for boys and girls. But soon we are disillusioned to see children emerging from the shrubs just outside the school playground. Rajendra, a grade 5 child tells us that he is "afraid" of using the toilet in his school because the tiles are broken and he has spotted an occasional snake. Meena, from grade 8 tells us she misses school almost 5 days a month because the toilets have no lights or latch for her to safely change her pad during her periods.

These stories reflect why despite toilets being built rapidly in India, people are not using them.

A more sustained solution to ending open defecation in India requires a targeted approach to create demand for functional toilets and ensure there is adequate supply of functional toilets.

Of the 2.4 billion in the world who do not have access to sanitation, a fourth i.e. 625 million are in India and defecating in the open. Our research, field work and anecdotal evidence suggests that these can be classified into two segments: the 'haves' who have access to a toilet but shall not use it due to deep cultural habits and/or taboos surrounding toilet usage and the 'have nots' who do not have access to a toilet and even if they do, the toilet is dysfunctional. Clearly there is both a demand and supply problem.

A more sustained solution to ending open defecation in India requires a targeted approach to create demand for functional toilets and ensure there is adequate supply of functional toilets. We are adopting a two-fold approach in India 1) providing clean, safe toilets in schools so that children get into the right habits and will go home and demand a toilet and 2) to meet this demand, creating a sustainable market-driven model in partnership with social entrepreneurs.

Bloomberg via Getty Images
A builder fits a toilet bowl during the construction of a toilet block, one of the first in the village and built with assistance from Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, in Chapra village, Haryana, India, on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

And why school toilets specifically? Almost all schools in India have toilets, but about 40% of these are not in a condition to be used either due to lack of water, light or even wash basins and soap after usage. Over the last year, we identified over 100 such schools in 5 states where our NGO Partner is helping restore toilets and driving behaviour change via "hygiene clubs" with children as their WASH (Water Sanitation & Hygiene) Captains. Once children get used to a clean toilet, they start demanding one at home.

This demand for toilets requires a sustainable supply model and here is where we believe social entrepreneurs can play a strong role. As founding members of the global Toilet Board Coalition, we are partnering with Svadha, a sanitation focused social enterprise, which is training villagers and fishermen in rural Orissa to become 'Sani-preneurs' who can sell their services to build toilets. Svadha works with local NGOs to educate villagers on WASH, generating demand for toilets at home and referring them to Sani-preneurs. Svadha provides the Sani-preneurs with microfinance, helps them source the best quality materials at optimum prices and teaches them to construct toilets.

Once children get used to a clean toilet, they start demanding one at home.

The need for such a market-driven business model is further reinforced by a Monitor Deloitte Study that estimates that the demand for rural toilets in India could be worth ₹500-700 billion ($10-14 billion), with an ₹300-450 billion ($6-9 billion) financing opportunity. The white paper explains that demand for toilets does exist in rural India, and the availability of quality and affordable products as well as financing are key levers to unlocking this demand.

It's been just over a year since we piloted the two-fold approach and early results have been encouraging. For example, in schools where we have renovated the toilets and created hygiene clubs, we have seen a 40% increase in new enrolments across boys and girls and 60% increase in attendance of girls. On the supply side, the number of new toilets built by the Sani-preneurs have gone up five times in the last year and Svadha is set to scale up in more states.

We hope that providing children like Rajendra or Meena a safe, clean toilet in their school will convince elders such as Mr Choudhury to unlock their toilets for the use of their families. And subsequently, communities will go to the local entrepreneurs asking for a toilet to be built in their homes. We need more stakeholders across corporates, NGOs and social enterprises with support of the government to galvanise both demand and supply to sustainably end open defecation.

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