Posts Tagged ‘Gram Vikas’

Its the title of a recent Current TV Vanguard episode that literally gets to the bottom of the 2.6 billion people worldwide who lack access to a toilet.  The topic is covered in an authentic, bold, and balanced way that is informative, shocking, disgusting, even entertaining at times– a must watch for anyone curious about the daily reality of 40% of humanity.

Featured early on is long-time InSPIRE friend Vimlendu Jha, of Sweccha, who takes Adam Yamaguchi on a tour of the Yamuna river.  Once sacred, its of course now a blackened, bubbling stew of sewage and industrial waste whose stench makes Adam lose his breakfast on its banks. Mixed in with the drama and cinematographic excellence, sanitation legends like Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh International and the charismatic Jack Sim of the World Toilet Organization are also featured prominently, though their compassionate spirit do not quite transmit through the script and editing.

While I laud Current TV for leading with programs like this, I wonder how far the same resources would go on a very different target audience.  Viewers in the West are edu-tained by such programs, but the impetus to act, if there is one at all, is dulled by a half-world’s distance from the problem and a lack of connections and savvy about how to engage with the issue.

Yet as a creative systems thinker, the program got my head and heart churning.

When we launched Lok Darshan in Gujarat’s largest slum, the very first program had an edu-taining segment on the need for toilets.  Narrowcast simultaneously with Manav Sadhna and the Environment Sanitation Institute’s toilet-building campaign, we heard of a large increase in inquiries and requests for toilets.  Though we did not have the bandwidth to actually measure our impact, it became immediately clear that the bottleneck in delivering on the demand was first limited organizational capacity & manpower, and then funding which came from both the NGO via the Gujarat Gov’t and a private donor from Singapore.  However, it was clear that edu-taining media was quite powerful when well-designed and targeted.

Some time later when working on few films for Gram Vikas,  Joe Madiath (the founder / executive director) and I discussed an idea inspired both by our success with Lok Darshan and with IDE’s success in marketing irrigation pumps across Bangladesh & N. India.  Why not create a Bollywood-like film that could be broadcast on a mobile van where the storyline ultimately edu-tained villagers into collectively signing up for sanitation?  After all, this is what Gram Vikas did anyways through countless meetings with village leaders across Orissa. Why not scale the messaging to move from supply-push to demand-pull?

Of course, Gram Vikas had no funding for the project and we did not have the expertise to make an appealing Oriya language film.  In addition, their deep and narrow focus means that its unlikely that they would ever have the idea or initiative completely on their own.

Enter Arvind Singhal.  He’s made a career of studying entertainment-education and social change.  A friend recently introduced us to his work with a stack of books and an offer to connect us personally if we’re interested.  The first chapter of one of his (long) books features Jasoos Vijay, a detective story with 125 million regular Doordarshan viewers in N. India that has successfully deconstructed social norms, values, and beliefs around HIV/AIDS.  At the time of the study, 5% of the audience had reported a positive change in their sexual behavior as a result of the program such that the cost per behavior change was 5 cents.  Like all change, I suspect that this first ripple has a much bigger actual impact that is perhaps immeasurable.

Examples now abound in media for social change at all ends of the spectrum.  Video Volunteers has expanded and scaled their community video unit model into a people’s media channel. Lok Darshan lives on through the instrumentality of MaM founders Meghna Banker and Madhusudan Agrawal.  Microsoft Research spun off Digital Green, a media-powered peer-to-peer farmer education network.  Avaaj Otalo uses radio broadcasts and a voice-enabled system to allow farmers to access timely agricultural information and knowledge.  Planet Read subtitles Bollywood songs in the same language to improve literacy.  And these are just a few examples from the South Asian context.  This phenomena is spreading all over the world, often funded by wealthy donors and agencies in the West.

So could this approach work for toilets?  The answer is “maybe”.

The competency of building demand for toilets and sanitation is different than managing and constructing them well.  One organization is unlikely to have both competencies because of the numerous social and financial obstacles to this enterprise, creating a familiar chicken & egg problem often seen in the developing world.  You have to both create the demand for your service, and deliver it at market-creating price, similar to what Aravind Eye Hospitals did with cataract surgeries.

The strategy on paper, regardless of how difficult or seemingly impossible, can be worked out.  Summoning the compassion and integrity to make it happen is the challenge.  So often, those who have cultivated the spiritual foundation don’t go further toward the practical implementation processes of a legitimate social enterprise.  And without rigorous internal processes, no strategy on paper really works.

And that stinks.  Literally.


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The New York Times recently reported on the Peepoo, a biodegradable plastic bag containing urea crystals that serves as a single-use disposable ‘toilet’ for people that lack access to regular toilets.  The urea crystals kill the harmful bacteria in the excrement that would ordinarily end up contaminating water supplies and spreading very preventable diseases.

The World Health Organization estimates that unsafe water kills 1.8 million people a year, and that inadequate sanitation and hygiene is responsible for 88% of that burden.  When you include the millions who daily suffer from non-lethal sickness from contaminated water, its easy to say that this is one of the world’s biggest problems.

The inventor of the Peepoo got the idea from observing African slum dwellers using regular plastic bags as ‘helicopter toilets’ that would be disposed of by twirling overhead after use to fling as far as possible.  Bags easily burst on or after impact, so this practice is as ineffective in dealing with the problem as it is humorously disgusting.  Can you imagine all the bag bombs flying around Kenyan slums in the morning?

The company claims to have done successful testing of the bags in Kenya, so would disposable, biodegradable ‘toilets’ work in Indian slums?  Let’s consider the question from several perspectives.


Each bag will be sold for $.02 – .03 , so an average Indian slum family of 5 would spend 10 – 15 cents (or Rs 5 – 8 ) per day, or Rs. 150 – 230 per month for their waste disposal needs.  That can be as high as 10% of household income for waste disposal in the face of several compelling alternatives.

Option 1:  Status quo.  Open defecation wherever you want.  Financial cost: zero.

Option 2:  Gov’t toilet.  On-going programs in most states allocate funds for toilet construction for those who lack access.  Financial cost: Rs. 1000 unsubsidized; or Rs. 100 with NGO subsidy.

Option 3:  Pay-use toilet. Like seen in Slumdog Millionaire, or those operated by a number of private players like Sulabh.  Financial cost: Rs. 1 per use.

Clearly, any option trumps the Peepoo.  The economics of a solution usually determine its fate, but there are ways to mitigate economic cost so we’ll examine social aspects next.

Social Dimensions

First, there is a widespread belief in India that the excrement of children is more ‘pure’ and less dirty than that of adults.  Slum kids tend to defecate openly even when their households have a toilet, and dislodging the adult misinformation around changing this practice is challenging.

Secondly, most Indian slum dwellers use water and their left-hand to clean themselves after defecating.  I wonder if the design accommodates for this, as it would make it more challenging to tie and dispose of the bag in a manner that doesn’t contaminate the right hand.

Boy holding his own poop in a bag.

Third, the stigma surrounding any type of waste handling is huge, and also has deeply entrenched caste and class characteristics.  An illustrative example is that people are opposed to using the biogas from composting toilets to cook even after all the smell has been removed.  Ignoring these facts, would you want to be seen carrying a bag labeled “Peepoo” in big letters?  I didn’t think so.

Fourth is the question of privacy.  For women in Indian slums, this is often the driving force behind getting a toilet, trumping all other financial and social costs associated with open defecation.  Peepoo does nothing to address this fundamental market-driver for toilets.

Lastly, one of the value propositions of Peepoo is that can be buried and used and fertilizer for crops.  However, there is usually very little digging that happens for human waste in Indian slums.  Only farming communities have adopted this practice, though I have not researched how widespread it is.

One segment of Lok Darshan‘s first episode, made by our talented team drawn from Gujarat’s largest slum, examines the realities of toilets for Indian slums through humor and song.

Community Compliance

Assuming economic and social barriers are overcome, Peepoo requires 100% community compliance in order to reduce the burden of disease.  In other words, it only takes one person pooping outdoors to contaminate a community’s water supply.  To my knowledge, the only organization deploying toilets and sanitation solutions that has understood this from the beginning is Gram Vikas, which insists that 100% of a community sign up for full sanitation facilities before deploying anything.  Everyone else can pat themselves on the back for building a few people toilets, but cannot rightly hope to impact that family’s or that community’s incidence of waterborne disease.

So What Is Peepoo Good For?

Despite this product’s current limitations in the context of Indian slums, I would argue that it has a number of practical, potentially powerful uses besides those in African slums.

Refugee Camps and Disaster Areas

Keeping them from becoming breeding grounds of disease is difficult.  I’d be willing to wager that the end-to-end cost of the current portable options is much higher than the PeePoo, and that gov’ts and aid agencies would be thrilled to take advantage of the cost savings.

Hikers / Campers In The West

On trails and locations that lack access to toilet facilities, Peepoo would be ideal.  Stores like North Face and REI could probably sell them for $1 / bag or more, especially if the price aimed at subsidizing 50+ free bags for refugee camps.


Seriously.  Just counting America’s 8.8 million babies, we generate 27.4 billion disposable diapers a year.  Getting even a small fraction of these to be biodegradable reaps huge benefits, though landfill degradation is still slower than normal degradation.  Again, I would subsidize free bags for Africa through sales to disposable diaper makers.

Regular Plastic Bags

The Pacific has its plastic garbage patch and it was recently discovered that the Atlantic has one to match, leading progressive cities like San Francisco to ban plastic bags entirely.  During the 2005 monsoon season, Mumbai was flooded because plastic bags had clogged the drainage systems, leading to a statewide ban on them.  If the plastic in Peepoo is truly biodegradable, why not take the urea out of them, re/de-brand the bags, and make them available to all the places still using plastic.  Its an instant market that addresses a global issue, and has huge potential to subsidize free PeePoos where needed.

All that said, there is a model for how Peepoo could work in Indian slums.  Whether the company is smart enough to discern it’s appropriate use and drive the market towards this solution is an entirely different question, and perhaps the test of how committed they are to their stated mission.

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Switzer Fellows are highly talented professionals who have the ability, determination and integrity to effect positive change as environmental leaders in the 21st century. Only the most active, committed and focused individuals will compete successfully to join the network of over 400 Fellows selected since 1986.”

Dipti has been working on appropriate energy technology, and is currently the Energy Program Coordinator at Gram Vikas in rural India. We learned the news a few days ago, but were waiting for the official announcement before sharing with others. Asha and I were also on hand in Orissa as Dipti was writing her Switzer essay, and will be gently nudging for her to make her vision public on her blog!

Check out a short video on Gram Vikas.

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