02/12/2016 9:38 AM IST | Updated 03/12/2016 10:36 AM IST

Why Business And Technology Must Collaborate To Make India Open Defecation-Free

Tata Trusts

While the Prime Minister's demonetisation move has grabbed the mind-space of Indians in recent days, one government-driven programme that has enthused citizens in recent months is the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), which aims at making India open defecation free (ODF) by October 2019.

SBM has allowed India to focus on the Sustainable Development Goal of securing sanitation for all, to be reached by 2030. Currently, 2.4 billion people across the world do not have access to safe sanitation, and sadly, nearly a third of this number is in India.

Making quality toilets requires interventions on linking supply chains for the toilet-building materials, and financing arrangements bridging the period till receipt of the government subsidy.

While there is some understanding of the impact on health (especially with regard to children and vulnerable groups) stemming from the lack of proper sanitation, the social and economic impact is less appreciated. Sometimes, women wait all day to go outside, after dark, to have privacy. Girls miss school every month unable to manage menstruation when schools do not have proper facilities. Children miss school because of the spread of disease caused by the absence of basic sanitation. Lack of proper sanitation not only affects the health of such people, but also their futures.

A recent audit report on CSR expenditures in water and sanitation programmes (by Samhita Social Ventures) shows that 75% companies were supporting programmes related to creating infrastructure, with little focus on behaviour change communication (BCC). Only 15% of the sample reported including toilet maintenance, and only 20% included BCC in their programmes.

The next few years will see widespread installation of sanitation systems. However, this will not solve the problems of health, social dignity and the impact upon earnings, unless interventions are made across the sanitation value chain.

Behaviour change communication must tackle the mindset that supports open defecation, not only in generating the demand for building a toilet, but also towards ensuring that all members of the household use the facility, day after day. This can only happen through a consistent effort at using every tool available—Community Led Total Sanitation, leveraging the persuasive power of school children and community-based institutions, testimonials and endorsements by role models and thought leaders, continued exhortation by the PM and administrative machinery, et al.

Organisations such as Tata Trusts that are focused on sanitation use extensive ethnographic research to develop behaviour change communication to bring about sustainable change by encouraging usage rather than merely construction of sanitation units.

As SBM lays down designs and construction norms to be eligible for the government subsidy (₹12,000 in rural India), there is an urgent need to build capacity across this part of the value chain, covering government functionaries all the way down to masons. Leveraging the power of technology (using virtual classrooms, linked to an expert imparting training from a central location) for basic and refresher courses can tackle the requirements of quality, speed and scale. The mission of making quality toilets quickly requires interventions on linking supply chains for the toilet-building materials, and financing arrangements bridging the period till receipt of the government subsidy. Large institutions and foundations with expertise in sanitation can play a significant role as development support partners of the government.

Africa is replete with examples of small- and medium-sized businesses creating value to "toilet resources" that have been used to produce biogas for energy, charcoal briquettes and organic fertiliser.

Having a toilet will not be enough for the user if there is no effective removal of the waste. A senior functionary from BRAC in Bangladesh recently shared with me that Bangladesh (which has achieved phenomenal success on being near ODF) now faces the huge challenge of waste disposal, as many of the pits linked to the toilets are filling up. The last big challenge to be tackled will be managing the waste.

Africa is replete with examples of small- and medium-sized businesses creating value to what was referred to as "toilet resources" at a recent international conference on sanitation held in Mumbai—these resources have been used to produce biogas for energy (by Safi Sana in Ghana), to produce charcoal briquettes (by Sanivation in Kenya), and to produce organic fertiliser (by Sanergy in Kenya).

India has few examples to show as yet of value creation from "toilet resources"—Samagra in Pune renovates and maintains public toilets in slums, with the operations partly subsidised by revenue generated from an internet kiosk (set up near the toilets) providing internet-based services to the community. I believe such organisations will show the way to many other entrepreneurs to successfully build businesses around sanitation.

While each of the aspects elaborated above has its own relevance in bringing about systemic change, true irreversible impact can only be achieved when all cogs work in unison to enable an open defecation-free India.

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