Vikram Lal is a prominent and well-regarded businessman. He is one who has proved that by relentless focus on quality, India does have a role to play in the global manufacturing scene. Now in retirement, Lal, being a sensitive and caring citizen, is looking at how to improve the lot of his countrymen and countrywomen. He wrote to me and I quote below a part of his message:
One of our foundations runs a whole bunch of schools in the really backward areas of Alwar district in Rajasthan. A lot of effort and expense goes into running these schools for the thousands of first-time learners in this rather poverty-stricken area.
One of the biggest problems we face is the building and maintenance of toilets for the kids and their teachers. Normally these are made away from the school building and are free-standing. They are made in the normal (shoddy) way things are constructed in such areas. There is a chronic problem of water in many places, and other problems, which means that these are not cleaned and therefore get into disuse. Everyone then goes back to using the wide open spaces. That is fine for males, but girls and female teachers do suffer.
My thought was that perhaps your company could develop a product — a light concrete toilet — that could be built centrally or regionally, and then distributed to wherever it was needed. It should include a sump or some such thing, and it obviously would be designed for low and easy maintenance.
The rape-murders in Badaun, UP, last month was an outcome of the vulnerability of women who need to relieve themselves at night. This is very common, particularly in the north, and it is essential that every home have an effective, low-maintenance unit.
If this is of any interest to you, please do let me know. The point of writing to you is that your company has the expertise of making thin-walled concrete shells of intricate designs in a fully engineered manner.
I quote below my reply to him:
Dear Mr Lal:
Sorry for the long delay in getting back to you.
I have been doing a lot of research. The problem with toilets is not so much in the building, but in the ongoing operations.
We can build the toilets — we are in the process of finalising one of two technology solutions.
The problems will start after that:
1. We have to assume that the municipality/ panchayat will NOT supply regular water. This means that we must identify a tube-well/ bore-well source near the toilet.
2. We need to drill the tube-well and install a pump for the same.
3. We have to assume that the electricity will NOT be available or will be available intermittently.
4. We therefore need a generator that can run a pump-set. We need space to store the diesel safely and not have it become a fire hazard.
5. Most importantly, the school will need to have sufficient funds to pay for the diesel to run the generator.
6. I do not think there will be a problem in having a septic tank for the waste.
Net-net it is the ongoing operation (including operating costs and the question of appropriate persons to supervise) which will be the challenge, not the construction of the toilet itself. If you are confident that the pump set, generator and ongoing diesel costs can be funded, and the operations managed, we would love to come back to you with designs and capital cost estimates.
Lal promptly replied to me. I quote below his reply:
Your logic is irrefutable. You have defined all the problems that come up in this matter. However, the solutions suggested are unsustainable firstly because they are just too expensive, and secondly because in many cases maintenance would simply not be available in an acceptable timeframe and at a reasonable cost.
On the other hand, there are just a few schools that have regular water supply, and another few that have an electric connection that works (but only poorly like for all farmers). These few schools could possibly be dealt with first.
The solutions for schools which have neither regular water supply nor electricity would probably come through some kind of waterless toilet or one that needs very little water, and perhaps through photovoltaics. I know that makes the task even more difficult to resolve, but that is the problem.
Let me give it some more thought, and I will get back to you.
This exchange of correspondence brings out the “last-mile operating problem” quite clearly. We can easily spend money on capital assets, for example, toilets. The problem is that our system does not allow for easy operation and usage of these capital assets. The various Ganga clean-up projects suffered from the same problem. We can build sewage treatment plants. But we run out of money to pay the staff; the power supply is irregular and the plants stop working efficiently and in some time stop working altogether. Even with digital outreach efforts, we notice a similar problem. We can build a computer centre in a village; we can supply the computers; but if power is unavailable for several hours in the day, we start feeling the need for a UPS and a diesel generator — all of which then need to be serviced and maintained at considerable cost. If telecom connectivity is poor, then the computer functions (when power is available) as a standalone unit, not one which is connected to the rest of the world.
Unless we seriously address the issues associated with the ongoing operations involving the availability of water and power and the maintenance and service issues associated with capital assets, the only beneficiaries will be contractors who build the capital assets and then walk away leaving these assets to rust, decay and go to ruin, providing no value to the intended beneficiaries.
The writer is a Mumbai-based entrepreneur