Charisma Murari

Moving the Sanitation Needle: On World Toilet Day, it’s time to talk about some creative, unlikely collaborations

Perhaps no one understands the significance of World Toilet Day (Nov. 19) like India’s 597 million people who have to defecate in the open. And there is perhaps no time like right now to “celebrate” this day in the country where the new government’s efforts to crack this problem have generated a lot of incredibly promising initial commitments.

We’ve seen corporate India rally around this renewed call to action with their donor foundation arms as well as inclusive business divisions kicking into high gear. For those of us advocating the “impact through business thesis,” this is another great reason to bring our belief into a mainstream conversation.

Airtel, among India’s leading telecom players, committed 1 billion Indian rupees toward constructing toilets across a small town in the state of Punjab, called Ludhiana, soon after the Indian government’s launch of the Clean India (Swachch Bharat) campaign. This campaign has committed that “‘no household or school in Ludhiana will be without a toilet at the end of three years.”

Reckitt Benckiser also committed 1 billion rupees a few months later, with a mission to create awareness about the importance of hygiene and sanitation with several NGO partners and a close association with its hygiene brand Dettol and its dominant toilet care brand Harpic.

Other examples of corporate interventions abound with names like Unilever, retailer Future Group and Indian consumer goods major Dabur.

This takes me to some of the growing movements that can potentially really move the sanitation needle, which are being driven by early-stage social enterprises. Astute entrepreneurs who have been innovating both on the product side and delivery side are creating access to sanitation and waste disposal for low-income communities.

Some cases in point are Banka Bioloo, which solves the problem of waste disposal by using a “bio-digester,” and is also able to deliver a toilet unit at affordable prices. They have also found that in the past fiscal year, 19 billion rupees out of a total allotment of 27 billion rupees under the Total Sanitation Campaign for Rural Areas went unutilized. They are now doing interesting work even for Indian Railways, which still grapples with the problem of open disposal of waste. Banka BioLoo secured recognition in 2013 from the prestigious Sankalp Awards, which honors India’s most scalable social enterprises.

Other social entrepreneurs who are coming in to tackle other gaps in sanitation delivery include Eram Scientific, which makes portable toilets with integrated technology. It revealed the world’s cheapest solar-powered e-toilet for schools in India. I am also thinking of Green Power Systems which has devised arguably the first viable biowaste-to-energy solution for urban establishments.

The World Toilet Day conversation in India now needs to go toward creative, unlikely collaborations. Entrepreneurs need to be at the same table with corporates, NGOs, development finance institutions and a few policy folks to blueprint how the problem of access to sanitation and its sustained maintenance can be solved at scale post haste.

There’s a big role for conveners and enablers here.

Charisma Murari is senior manager of marketing & communications for Intellecap.

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