Why toil for toilets?

“Build toilets first, and temples later,” this statement by India’s Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi may have caused a lot of controversy, but it does leave you thinking. The Indian sanitation scenario today is haunting. According to a joint report by WHO and UNICEF in 2014, close to 597 million people in India still practice open defecation, which is more than half of the country’s population. Thousands of women in small villages and towns cannot go to defecate without looking over their shoulders. Which makes one wonder: Are we really placing divinity before dignity? What’s worse is that this deplorable state of sanitation facilities in India is killing a child every 20 seconds.

Every 20 seconds. That’s almost the same as the time it takes for you to toast a bread in your toaster. You toast your two slices of bread in the morning, and bam – another child has died because of diseases due to poor sanitation. Make sure you let that sink in.

We are surrounded by sprawling metropolitan cities and urban corridors all around; in fact, right now, India is one of the most dynamic economies in the world. But under this blanket of growth and development hides the monster. This monster is our creation and it gets stronger as the days go by, but that’s not the worst part. The worst part is that it is not a figment of our imagination.

It’s not as if nothing is being done to solve this problem. Many government and private initiatives have worked on this challenge for years. In 1990, only 17% of the population had access to improved sanitation facilities. Today, the figure stands at 40%. There has been change, but the million-dollar question is: Is it fast enough?

Why haven’t we reached a good standard of sanitation in India? Where have we gone wrong? We were curious, so we tried to figure it out. Our team toured extensively to different parts of India, analysing the problem in depth by studying various toilet designs across the country. We observed that:

• All the government campaigns of the past were focused on building cheap toilets to end open defecation. Right intention, but wrong approach. There was no emphasis on maintenance of these toilets. Soon enough, they were turned into pits of dust and disease.
• In the process of making cheap toilets, toilet design and ventilation were never considered. Fields: 1, Toilets: 0. The toilets ended up being store rooms instead of a social solution.
• Most toilets built to date are unsustainable in operation. They use large amounts of water, which is another concern in remote villages and towns. • When it comes to community toilets, there is no effective administration to look after their maintenance.

Looking at these reasons, it’s not hard to figure out why our sanitation campaigns never end up making a significant impact. In the larger scheme of things, it looks like all the initiatives always missed out on the most basic and essential cog – the toilet itself. To start solving the challenge of open defecation and poor sanitation, we have to start with a toilet which has little dependence on the outer world. And that’s where we come in.

There isn’t a paucity of IT based startups today, but we still don’t see a lot of technology based startups which are working towards finding technological solutions to crucial social challenges. Having gained sufficient technical knowledge by studying at IIT Roorkee, we want to apply it for the good of the society. And there is no better way than to begin with sanitation.

We are developing a toilet model, that, in simple words, expects the least out of its users. In designing our toilet model, the most fundamental aspect is that its operation should not change with user experience. We want people to associate our brand with good experience, but most importantly, with health and hygiene.

You might ask – “Why now?”, to which our reply is, “It’s about time.” A solution to the sanitation problem is not only long overdue, but is also the need of the hour. With the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched in 2014 with a mission of achieving an open-defecation-free India by 2019, we believe it is about time we starting transforming the existing system with some radical changes. After all, the longer we wait, the more dangerous the monster gets. The time to jump into action is right now, and there is no looking back.