Toiling for toilets

Amrita Prasad
Sunday, 4 March 2018

Swapnil Chaturvedi, founder, CEO and chief toilet cleaner at Samagra, tells us how they use information and communications technology, behavioural sciences and human centred design to make sanitation services accessible to all

Long before Prime Minister Narendra Modi started the cleanliness campaign Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar took up his fight against open defecation in his film Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Swapnil Chaturvedi started his battle and even took pride in being called the Poop Guy. 

This former techie, who took a pledge to stop open defecation and provide clean and hygienic toilets to urban slum dwellers, created Samagra Waste Management Private Limited. Since then, the president, CEO and chief toilet cleaner at Samagra has been relentlessly working in this sphere and transforming dilapidated and damaged toilets into ‘awesome’ community toilets. 

Chaturvedi recently gave a talk at Pune Design Festival 2018 organised by Association of Designers of India where he stressed on the fact how designers and the society must come forward to deal with the sanitation problem. “The answer to problems like lack of poor sanitation lies in innovative use of psychology, technology and design. Sixty per cent of the population in Mumbai lives in slums, while 40 per cent people resides in the slum areas in Pune. Their homes are too small where six to seven people live under one roof and that’s where the problem lies. Where will they build the toilet?” he asks. 

However, offering a solution to the problem, he says that access to clean toilets will not only reduce the chances of women and children getting infected but will also minimise the cases of young girls/ women being molested or raped as they will not have to wait for dawn or dusk to go for open defecation. 

Under Chaturvedi’s leadership, Samagra has been successful in raising over 1 million dollars funding and providing clean, hygienic and safe sanitation services to over 150,000 daily users across more than 100 slums in Pune. 

In 2011, Chaturvedi gave up his US residency and moved back to India to start Samagra. In order to gain first-hand experience, he lived in slums in different cities in the country. His aim is to provide affordable sanitation and value added services to 20 million urban poor in the next five years by collaborating with several organisations across the developing world. 

Despite facing the issue of vandalism of public toilets, efforts like installing automatic flush, pay and use toilets, introduction of insurance schemes at subsidised rates, etc have resulted in better maintenance and functioning of public toilets. “The community toilets that we built or renovated were continuously being vandalised — taps would get stolen and the property would be completely ruined. We realised that we needed to design the toilets in such a way that it would nudge people to build good habits. We wanted the perceptions around toilets to change and the ‘shittiest’ and ‘dirtiest’ place to become an agent of  behavioural change,” he adds. 

Chaturvedi  designed user-friendly toilets and introduced ‘Loo Rewards’ programme for slum dwellers. “When we installed automatic flush systems, we realised that people who otherwise didn’t bother flushing the toilets after use, started flushing when they found a clean toilet. This resulted in other healthy habits such as washing their hands. Coming to the value-added services, or ‘Loo Rewards,’ we learnt that only when people paid to use the community toilets, they ensured cleanliness around it. Soon the community toilets became a platform for engagement and a medium to advocate. We introduced low-cost health insurance schemes, facilities to pay their electricity bills at the community toilets using mobile phones, providing low-cost sanitary napkins to women and helping them with banking services, such as opening an account, at toilets. Soon the community toilets also took the form of primary health and daycare centres,” says Chaturvedi. 

Chaturvedi further urges young designers to look into the basic needs of the underprivileged. “It is both beneficial for the nation’s development and for designers to enter this sector because sanitation is a big problem and wherever there is a big problem lies a big opportunity. It is still an unexplored discipline and as designers you must come up with ideas and concepts that will attract bigger companies towards you. Also, people like your domestic help, security guards, plumbers, etc face these problems on a daily basis. Try to solve their problems,” he adds. 

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