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India is ground zero for the global sanitation crisis: John Kluge

Interview with co-founder and chief disruption officer, Toilet Hackers

Ranjita Ganesan  |  Mumbai 

Almost half of the 1.2 billion people in India have no access to a toilet at home. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has declared that every home in the country would have a toilet by 2019, a need is being felt to develop behavioural changes towards sanitation alongside infrastructure. John Kluge, co-founder and chief disruption officer of Toilet Hackers, who was in New Delhi for a convening Clean India: Stimulating Behavior Change and Usage convention, speaks to Ranjita Ganesan about his suggestions on how the problem should be approached

How deep is the sanitation problem in India?

India is ground zero of the global sanitation crisis. With about half of the population, 650 million people, without access to improved sanitation, hygiene and clean water, it is by far the biggest single country percentage of the total issue.

How does the country fare compared with other developing and developed nations?

India has some of the most progressive progress underway for sanitation in the world. There are tremendously successful and hopeful business models and innovations being developed around the country - from the community led programmes of GramVikas to Eram Scientifics solar-powered, self-cleaning toilets. It is the only country that I know of whose head of state has courageously publicly committed to solving its sanitation crisis, which is leaps and bounds ahead of most other countries, including, by the way, the United States, which has an old and rapidly declining infrastructure system.

Having said that, despite the prevalence of open defecation and open sewers in India, denial is pervasive amongst much of the population. Furthermore, there typically is an overemphasis on hardware (infrastructure and latrine projects), which alone will not solve the problem. We know for example that in Uttar Pradesh, of households that have received government subsidised toilets, over 40 per cent still have at least one family member who prefers to open defecate. It only takes one person to poison a community water supply.

In Bangladesh, the focus was on altering behaviour before revamping the infrastructure. Is this the way to go in India?

Absolutely. It is basic economics. You need demand as well as supply to make the system work properly.

Modi wants to ensure every home in the country has a toilet by 2019. Is this realistic and what will be the key challenges?

Having senior level political will in place to drive nationally scaled social change on this issue, particularly as it also relates to the safety and equity of women, is an enormous step forward, not just for India, for but the global community working to improve access to sanitation for the 2.5 billion people without a toilet. One key challenge is to think that providing someone with access to sanitation (infrastructure) is the solution to the problem. Hardware will never be a full solution to a social challenge if deployed without significant or equal investment in software (cultural or behavioural change).

The other major challenge is getting all the right partners working together with a common strategy. This is not just a government solution. It cannot be. It is also not just a social enterprise or private sector solution, as government is required to help take their models to scale. Often in the social sector partnerships fail, because there is a perceived shortage of resources. Perhaps greater than in the private sector, there is heightened competition for resources when organisations should instead be joining forces. As my friend Jack Sim, head of the World Toilet Organization, says, we have to shift from the egosystem to an ecosystem approach.

What sort of infrastructure does India need to build?

Whatever infrastructure its people will use safely and maintain. I am toilet agnostic, provided the models do not use much water and have people using them properly.

What are some breakthrough innovations being developed around the world for improving access to sanitation?

Innovation is an interesting word. I think the greatest innovations in sanitation are not actually products but partnerships. One such partnership that is being developed is between Sesame Workshop and the WorldWide Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. It is still in its early stages of development but I think the potential for them to work together to train young girls as behaviour change agents in their communities is enormous. Neither organisation could do this on their own but together they can reach and train millions. That's an exciting innovation to me.

What are some of the initiatives launched by Toilet Hackers in this direction and the results from them?

Our job is to act as a catalyst, helping to mobilise partnerships, ideas, and resources for the sanitation sector. Our greatest initiatives have been those we have executed through partnership - like the 2012 global sanitation hackathon we launched with the World Bank, or inspiring the Global Poverty Project to make sanitation one of their core campaign targets, which resulted in them mobilising their activist and advocacy community to successfully lobby for the passage of the Water for the World Act in 2014.

First Published: Sat, April 18 2015. 21:14 IST