Most of India’s sanitation woes boil down to the same context, open defecation. Roughly 60% of India’s population defecates in the open and only 21% has reached rural sanitation coverage. Poor sanitation in India also affect the health of children and it results in malnutrition in most cases. Only 32% of households in India have their own toilets and due to a raising sanitation deficit in the country, there has been a gaping loss in GDP and this has also lead to increase in the disease burden of the country.
Swapnil Chaturvedi, a software engineer settled in USA, visited India after a four-year hiatus to his hometown Raipur, Chattisgarh, with his three-month-old daughter. The sanitation condition in the city overwhelmed him. Worst-hit areas were the urban slums and the government schools. He realised the fact that people defecate in the open since there is a burgeoning lack of toilets. One year down the line he came back to India, this time to build and toilets and revamp municipality toilets through his organisation Samagra.
From an engineer to The Poop Guy
Imagine your business card reading, “Poop Guy – I Love Shit”. Swapnil’s business cards read exactly the same. The motivation to work towards creating better sanitation possibilities in the country drove him towards taking the big leap, quit his successful career as an engineer and shifting his base back to India and start Samagra to address the issue at the local level.
When The Logical Indian spoke to Swapnil, he said, “The first time I worked to create a model in sanitation was when I was studying business in North-Western University, Chicago. Working for the project involved a lot of research and I got to know about the grass-root level problems faced by our fellow countrymen who aren’t as lucky as we are. Most of them don’t have access to toilets in their home.” He dropped out of his course in business studies only to come back to India and started Samagra.
The first model of intervention was to convert human excreta into electricity. He started working on finding a solution to sanitation problems and it was in late 2010 that he came back to India to start working in the social sector. “This shift was a big, drastic one, but it was the junoon in my head that made me strive to bring about a change in the sanitation scenario in the country,” Swapnil added. He said, “My experience taught me that education or any kind of special skill set has nothing to do with working in the social sector. All boils down to the fact how driven you are to bring about the change that you want to see”.
It took him four attempts to understand the problems faced by our fellow citizens at the grass-root level, in context to sanitation and to get a scale-able solution to deal with these problems. In 2012 and 2013 he invested money without taking the public behavioural aspect into account. His failures taught him a lot about problems people face and he even stayed in a slum for a period of six months to understand the lives of people there. “I wanted to find out what could be done so that people can get access to the essential life utilities,” said Swapnil. Pune helped them to get a very fresh perspective to solve the problem.
His first project was in Raipur and it was an in-home toilet model which failed to gain momentum but it contributed to his learning, by helping him assess the turnout of the project. Pune, on the other hand, taught him how to mitigate the challenges and how to create a scale-able intervention model. Samagra has created toilets which users would want to use and the paid users would get added advantages. Samagra has also taken up the responsibility of cleaning community toilets and revamping them with better facilities. These toilets have proper hygiene and ventilation system and are fitted with sanitation devices which cannot be vandalised. For his innovative approach to deal with problems related to sanitation in India, Swapnil has also received acclaim and recognition nationwide.
Challenges he faced and the road ahead
“Technical, human behavioural and challenges depending on the stakeholders are the kind of challenges which we face on a regular basis”, he said. Sanitation provisioning in an urban slum is difficult as you hardly have access to space and there are stakeholders like the community who uses it and local political parties. Local political parties often have vested interests and local municipal corporation and its workers are difficult to deal with. They hardly have well-defined roles and responsibilities.
Swapnil added, “People demand better facilities and if they don’t get it, they get very frustrated which means they are inclined to use better services.” Apart from this, there are cases of rampant vandalism and improper usage that Samagra has to deal with on a regular day to day basis. “The solution to these challenges can be achieved only through awareness and change in mindset. Making people involved in the facility and take ownership of these public toilets, can be one way to deal with the problem and that is what we are trying to do in Pune,” he further added.
“A lot of understanding, research and intervention models were being worked upon to see how can we mitigate these challenges,” he said. In Pune, there are public toilets which are owned by women entrepreneurs from the nearby locality. The women are trained on provisioning the different services to their paying members. They emerge as community leaders for their respective locality. Through this method, Samagra is also effectively helping in the generation of employment.
The paying members are the ones who subscribe for the toilets against a small fee. Paying-users get added advantages like opening provisions of opening a bank account, free call time, discounts on sanitary napkins to name some. Thereby Samagra works actually on a two-tiered process. One, not-for-profit, where users can use clean toilets for free which have bath fittings that cannot be vandalised and they can pay as well to gain benefits from these value added services. The other is a for-profit model where Samagra services community toilets, reinstates them in a better condition so that they can be used by the community members.
With a massive increase in urbanisation, the population of slum dwellers will grow manifold. Five years down the line Samagra wants to scale to serve more than 20 million users from 150,000 users. Their idea is to make their presence felt in above hundred cities in India, through partnerships or through projects executed by themselves. They want the community engagement intervention model to be adopted by as many communities as possible across the country so that the burgeoning problem of sanitation in India can be dealt effectively. Now they are looking forward to expanding in new cities that are not only working on community toilets, but a whole360-degreee experience in the domain of public toilets, including schools.
On asking Swapnil about the message he would like to convey to The Logical Indian community, he said, “The critical challenge is, as infrastructure is not provided properly, people are forced to go and defecate in the open. It is very easy to complain but we can’t bring an effective change unless we challenge the social norms. We are so used to live in the filth, thus we don’t demand better living from our government. We need to bring small changes.” The Logical Indian community applauds the kind of motivation with which Swapnil aims at bringing a change in the society.
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