Rob Katz

Interview: Vijay Mishra Takes Sanitation Seriously

Kumar Vijay Mishra is a radar research scientist currently pursuing research and graduate studies in Colorado State University. He is also an amateur writer, with a secret ambition of publishing a short-story collection, and likes volunteering for social causes that interest him creatively. Recently, Vijay combined his interest in social causes with his writing ambitions to enter the BOP Learning Lab’s base of the pyramid essay competition with an essay entitled Promoting Sanitation, Empowering Communities. Vijay and co-author Amit Gupta took 3rd place in the competition; more importantly, they took a great step to get the word out about improved sanitation in India and the role of market-based approaches to this massive problem.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to speak with Vijay, who shared some thoughts on his essay and the sanitation problem facing India and other countries around the world. Tell the audience a little about yourself – where you come from, your educational/professional background.

Vijay Mishra: I was raised in central India. For university, I attended NIT Hamirpur, in Himachal Pradesh. Following university, I took a job as a research scientist first in Pune, then Bangalore. In fall 2007, I moved to the United States for graduate school at Colorado State University – I research weather radars. Personally, I’m interested in creative writing and volunteering for social causes, which is why this whole essay contest appealed to me. Over the years, I’ve done a lot of institutional volunteering in school and work related to helping poor individuals. When and where did you first hear about the idea of market-based approaches to poverty alleviation?

Vijay Mishra: In my hometown, I visited lots of surrounding villages – there is no sanitation at all. After those visits, my interest was piqued, which led me to start reading about the issues around sanitation. I learned first about Sulabh International, an Indian NGO promoting santiation. They’ve set up lots of public toilets across India. But reading was not enough – I needed to see it for myself. It wasn’t clear from articles how having a toilet actually makes a difference. What was your inspiration to write this essay?

Vijay Mishra: I was inspired by Sulabh International, but the missing pieces there led me to read more and more articles as well. Interestingly, Sulabh is working with a cross-subsidy model that allows community members to pay less and visitors to pay more. Here’s the market at work, I thought – but Amit and I wanted to explore it further. Is there a particular author or article that you consider “must-read” for the BoP community?

Vijay Mishra: I recommend the recent “Romanticizing the Poor” debate between Karnani and Prahalad and Hammond. It is good to see the discussion here about poor people and choices…of course, I see people making good (and bad) choices all the time, so neither party is totally “right” but it is good to get the discussion out there. What was the most challenging part of the essay contest?

Vijay Mishra: It was difficult to prove that market based approaches to sanitation could actually be profitable. We were always driving ourselves to think – is this really profitable? When government used to sanction funds for these programs, and even other donors, they didn’t work out very well. So researching how and when work like this can be profitable. What’s next for the initiatives you wrote about?

Vijay Mishra: First, we need to understand what “improved sanitation” means. I think it means having a flushing toilet. Half of the world’s open defecators live in India…this is not just about wiping out open defecation, it’s about getting access to real facilities, flushing toilets. Currently, this program is only in big cities – but what about smaller towns? We need to make sure we are taking this model to small towns. What’s next for you as a professional?

Vijay Mishra: I’m continuing as a scientist and with the work I am doing – it’s not BoP related. But on the social side, I am going to focus more and more on BoP ideas as my volunteer focus. What does the BoP sector as a whole – as a community – need to do to support companies like the one you profiled?

Vijay Mishra: There needs to be community involvement by the local customers – free is not really free. When something is given for free, it falls victim to neglect and there’s no sense of ownership. Second, there’s a need to involve the local community in the project as laborers, and as administrators – esepcially women.