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Building Toilets is not Crazy

Twenty years ago, no-one would have believed that an array of Indian and international experts would devote two days of their lives to discussing toilets. But that’s just what happened at the 17th World Toilet Summit, convened in Mumbai on November 19 and 20, with the theme: ‘Can The World Be Open Defecation-Free By 2030?’

Keynote speaker Jack Sim, Founder of the World Toilet Organisation (WTO) encountered similar disbelief when he established the body. “The media didn’t want anything to do with term like Faecal Sludge Management”, said Sim, “so we put the word ‘toilet’ in the name of our organisation. People laughed when they heard it. Eventually, we turned the subject into a media focus.”

The WTO was founded in 2001 on November 19, now celebrated as World Toilet Day by 193 countries all over the world, as well as Day One of the summit. Leprosy, slavery, apartheid and women’s rights were all once taboos discussed only in secret; the WTO broke the taboo on toilets by talking about them openly and telling human stories that connected with listeners, often with a dash of humour. A WTO press conference in Germany was once conducted with toilets!

Sim explained how we need to understand the psyche of people towards the idea of constructing toilets. “People will be always be moved emotionally first, then rationally. So, we want to make the toilet a status symbol. People are always comparing themselves to their neighbours; when they have a toilet, they will think they are better off than those who don’t. Jealousy is a very powerful tool.”

Going into the nitty-gritty of how we need to go about broaching the subject of toilets with people, he said: “We have to ask questions like ‘do you care for your parents? They took so much effort to bring you up. Now that you are making money, do you want to show your appreciation by building your own toilet in your house, so your grandmother doesn’t have to walk far away?’ This is a half-emotional, half-rational sales pitch”.

Sim praised PM Modi’s goal of building 110 million toilets under the Swachh Bharat Mission by 2019, calling it the largest toilet building exercise in history. It is commendable that India aspires to be open defecation free by 2020. He said, “We should bring in more corporate players to join government policy and activities. When sanitation is profitable, they will invest to build more demand. Once you drive demand, you can then drive supply.”

Naina Lal Kidwai, Chair of the Indian Sanitation Coalition (ISC) agreed that corporates are a key constituent in the action plan for sanitation. The ISC was formed to be a forum where all stakeholders could convene; Kidwai told the story of how there were four non-profits working on sanitation in a single district of Bihar, none of whom aware of what the others were doing! “Benchmarking of best practices and making sure it is shared, collaborations and partnerships where notfor- profits, governments, donors and corporates all work together for a common agenda” is the ISC’s method of working, Kidwai said.

Chief Executive Officer of the India Sanitation Coalition, Laxmi Lakshmi Sampath Goyal added that going forward, their area of focus was going to be treatment. “If we don’t treat the waste, it’ll still end up where it ended up earlier – in fields and water bodies. We are enthused by the traction we see amongst corporates, who are now open to investing in Faecal Sludge Treatment plants.”

Rob de Groot, President of RB Hygiene Home said, “I’ve come to realise that hygiene is not only about cleanliness and health. Sadly, it is also about injustice. Access to sanitation is a fundamental human right. Yet, a stunning proportion of people on our planet are forced to struggle without it.

Vedika Bhandarkar is the MD of Water.org India, a not-for-profit which focuses exclusively on providing access to safe water and sanitation to people living at the base of the economic pyramid. “One of the main barriers to building toilets”, she said, “is access to upfront capital. Working with our partners, we have been able to reach nine million people in India so far. We will work with enterprises in the water and sanitation supply chain and in faecal sludge management, so that they can access formal financing. In the next five years, we plan to reach 30 million people.”

The Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA) is a Government of Japan body that has financed over 25 mega-projects in India, many of them related to clean water and sanitation. JICA accounts for 16% of the total financial assistance to this sector and has already supported the construction of 1500 toilets. A representative of JICA said that it also worked with NGOs and students on sanitation awareness program. “While Japan’s initial collaboration with India was about the transfer of technology, a Japanese company has now started manufacturing toilets in India, with factories in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh”.

Building toilets on a large scale is a commendable feat, but construction is only Step 1 of the process of making India Open Defecation-Free. Patricia O’Hayer, Global Head Communications & Government

Affairs, RB said, “Tragically, 50% of all toilets built are no longer functioning after twelve months, because they are not maintained in a way that allows them to do the job they were constructed to do. It’s very easy to build a toilet, and very difficult to help people understand the importance of maintaining them.”

RB has helped build two World Toilet Colleges in India, at Aurangabad and Rishikesh. “What we’re looking to do through these institutions”, said Patricia, “is to help train people not only in the construction of toilets, but also in the behavioural changes needed to maintain them and make sure they are clean and hygienic spaces, and also to build pride, so that people realise that clean toilets are key to a healthy and productive life and family.”

At the expo running alongside the summit, an expert from Sato explained the features of one of their toilet solutions. The model – a twin-pit pour-flush latrine like the one being used in the Swachh Bharat Mission – has a trapdoor mechanism that seals off smells, insects and pathogens from the living environment. It also has a diversion mechanism to divert the flow of waste into each pit, which can be switched with a simple flick of a stick. Speaking about what influences its design, he said: “We have a lot of stakeholders in the supply chain but finally, the product has to benefit the enduser.”

Gial Giansing from the Indo- German Co-operation for Giz India, announced the release of an advisory compiled along with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs on public and community toilets. He said, “it is a compilation of all the knowledge which has been gained in the last four years of the Swachh Bharat Mission and is a handy manual for grassroot level practitioners on how to design, construct, operate and maintain toilets.”

Leave it to Jack Sim to have the last word: “There will always be naysayers. If nobody says you’re crazy, you’re not innovating. The clearer you see the future, the nearer the future is. It’s not about you, it’s not about your organisation. It’s about making the world fairer, better, and leaving behind a legacy.”


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