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Public health

MAKOTO KAJIWARA, Nikkei senior staff writer

October 26, 2015

Having a proper toilet has changed the lives of Shakuntala Tanwar, left, and her grandchildren, in the village of Hirmathla, near New Delhi.


NEW DELHI — In India, the simple act as going to the toilet is arduous for hundreds of millions of people. It can even be life-threatening.

A deeper look into the issue reveals both deep-rooted challenges and huge opportunities for the country.

In the Mewat district’s Hirmathla village, in the state of Haryana, about 50km south of New Delhi, new toilets have transformed the lives of residents. Shakuntala Tanwar, a 55-year-old homemaker, once had to walk more than 500 meters to find a spot out in the bush to relieve herself because she did not want to be seen. To avoid prying eyes, she could only do so at night. That led to problems with her digestive tract. “My very life has changed,” she said.

In rural India, she is one of the lucky ones. About half of Indian households have no proper toilets. That proportion reaches nearly 70% in the countryside. That translates to about 600 million people. Altogether, India accounts for 60% of people worldwide who have no choice but to defecate in the open, according to the World Health Organization.

No place to go

In 2014, the Japan International Cooperation Agency conducted a survey of 451 households in three Indian states, including Rajasthan. The results were grim.

The survey found that 27% of the people covered in the survey had to relieve themselves in the open. Eleven people said they have to walk more than 1km from their homes to do so. Fully 40% of respondents reported they had been attacked by snakes, scorpions, dogs or other animals. Just over a quarter of female respondents (26%) said they had been ridiculed, had come close to being sexually assaulted or had actually been assaulted while answering nature’s call.

Sulabh International Social Service Organisation promotes the installation of toilets across India and provides education to low-caste people. Students receive training at a vocational school run by the organization in New Delhi.

But the severe shortage of toilets in India is not just a problem of sanitation, health or women’s safety. It is the result of entrenched social norms. Traditionally, the lowest caste, the Dalits, once called untouchables, had the job of cleaning up excrement. This work was handed down through the generations. The caste system and open defecation are intertwined.

Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, a nongovernmental organization based in New Delhi, has been trying to address these vexing social issues. Founder Bindeshwar Pathak, a sociologist and activist, established the group in 1970, aiming to install proper toilets across India and provide education to those born into low castes.

The organization has been working to install two-pit toilets developed by Pathak. The system has two underground pits. When one pit is full, the drains is sealed until the waste becomes compost. Then people switch to the the other pit. Pathak said that he devised this simple solution because sewage systems are underdeveloped India.

The NGO also provides vocational training to people who make their living cleaning up human waste. It offers classes in computers, sewing, cosmetology — allowing them to find other work. Pathak dreams of a day when there are no more Dalits in India.

Cleaning up with toilets

Toilets are serious business, and high on the government’s agenda. Prime Minister Narendra Modi highlighted the problem in his first Independence Day speech in August 2014. As well as promising to fight rape and the caste system. Modi vowed to launch a “Clean India” campaign, saying the government would build more toilets throughout the country. “Can’t we just make arrangements for toilets for the dignity of our mothers and sisters?” he said.

Sahyadri Industries, an affordable housing materials company based in Pune, southeast of Mumbai, sees a business opportunity in India’s lack of commodes. According to a local newspaper report, the company has developed an easy-to-install toilet and has been marketing it to many rural villages. Pune is an IT and educational hub in the state of Maharashtra.

In the village of Kashal, about a two-hour drive north of central Pune, Meehakshi Jadhar, 24, lives in a house with six other people, including her husband, her child and cousins. Until this spring, she and her family members had to go into the bush to relieve themselves, watching out for snakes all the while.

Recently, the whole village is rushing to build toilets from Sahyadri. With a government subsidy and other forms of assistance, installation costs 4,000 rupees ($66) per unit. They are also easy to install, requiring no technical expertise and little labor.

In the village of Kashal, near Pune, Meehakshi Jadhar has installed a cheap and easy-to-build toilet for her son.

All one has to do is put the walls together and attach a basin using a power drill. No bricks or mortar are needed. Putting one up takes about 20 minutes.

Sahyadri developed the product, called Swachalay, which means “clean toilet” in the local language, after Modi’s speech. “I thought the market would expand,” said Satyen Patel, managing director of the company. Sahyadri expects 1 billion rupees in sales this fiscal year and aims to increase that number three- to fourfold by 2018. It has started exporting its toilets to Kenya, with a view toward moving into Tanzania and Uganda in the near future.

For Sahyadri, this is not charity but strictly business. The company is listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange and has to generate profits for investors. But unless the company can meet social needs, it won’t be able to achieve sustainable growth, Patel said. In a country struggling with a host of challenges his insight underscores the importance of this universal principle of management.

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