Techie puts country before self,quits US job to improve sanitation

When software techie Swapnil Chaturvedi decided to chuck his high-paying job in the US in 2011 to to work in the field of toilet and sanitation in India,his friends thought he had literally lost it.

Written by Partha Sarathi Biswas | Pune | Published:November 24, 2013 1:39 am

When software techie Swapnil Chaturvedi decided to chuck his high-paying job in the US in 2011 to to work in the field of toilet and sanitation in India,his friends thought he had literally lost it. But a determined Chaturvedi managed to effect a tangible change in the “mucky world of public toilets”. His work caught the attention of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,which decided to support his social enterprise with a grant of Rs 60 lakh. On Saturday,Chaturvedi’s initiative Samagra was honoured with the special mention at a function organised by the Software Exporters’ Association of Pune,PuneConnect in the city. The journey of Samagra,the start-up venture of Chaturvedi,began in 2007,when he had come down to his hometown in Chhatisgarh for his annual vacation. “My father used to say the GDP of India is more than 10 per cent but the growth is unequal. It was with this view point that I decided to come back to India in 2011,” he said.

The concept of Samagra,according to Chaturvedi,is based on multiple levels of research and community outreach. “To understand the reason why people avoid public toilets,we conducted extensive surveys across slums in Pune. Our survey and analysis showed that 70 per cent users avoid using toilets due to problems of accessibility while for the rest open air defecation is more of a habit,” he said.

To increase use of public toilets,Samagra team put on their designing caps and redesigned the public toilet. It involved making simple yet effective changes in the existing toilet structures. “Most of the public toilets lack cross-ventilation,” he said.

Another major problem is that toilets get choked due to people throwing objects like liquor bottles and others. Fitting the toilets with a rim which solved the problem. Disposal of the sanitary pads,a major issue was also addressed by the company,in a simple and effective manner.

“For women living in slums,the toilet is the only place where they can dispose of their sanitary pads. But due to stigma attached to it,they do not use bins placed outside the toilet blocks instead stack them up in the ventilators. Our design intervention involves setting up of a chute inside the toilet block,which would lead to an incinerator,” he said. Figures say that the civic body spends more than Rs 2-3 lakh for repairing of choked toilet blocks ar month.

Similar redesigning like in-built plumbing,jet stream of water for cleaning and special baby toilets made toilets more accessible and user-friendly. Thanks to the usage of a special app,a tab on the number of people using the toilets can be kept.

To increase the use of toilets,small incentives like toilet coupons,are given to the users. “These coupons are for products made by the local self-help groups and allows formation of a ready market for them,” he said. “For the redesigning of a public toilet block only Rs 10,000 is required and it effects a whole gamulet of social changes,” he said.

The first experimental toilet block was set up in the slum near to SNDT in Kothrud. Chaturvedi said a final shape is being given to an agreement that would mean 1,200 additional toilet blocks in more slums. “If things go good,we would be able to finish the work in the next 2-4 years,” he said.

When Chaturvedi decided to leave his job,even his wife had opposed. “She said it was my dream and some how,I had to make it work. But now,looking at the tangible changes,this has produced she got convinced about the idea. Now,she heads our app division,” he said. With Pune being the first corporation where the project is being implemented,enquiries from civic bodies in Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan are already coming in.

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