The CSR-Swachh Bharat report card

Many companies have committed to building toilets, but their involvement in the drive is limited


When it comes to building toilets, companies are opting for traditional, low-cost options even though a host of new technologies such as solar-powered e-toilets are available. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
When it comes to building toilets, companies are opting for traditional, low-cost options even though a host of new technologies such as solar-powered e-toilets are available. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Mumbai: When Tata Consultancy Services Ltd (TCS) was surveying the state of toilets in schools in September 2014, they found that most toilets did not have a water tap. “The lack of water was the main reason for disuse of toilets. Water supply to toilets is the most complex piece of toilet-building as there is no single solution for ensuring a water connection,” says Vipin Arora, programme director, corporate initiatives, TCS.

The information technology services firm says it has set aside Rs.100 crore to build 10,000 school toilets for girls under the Swacch Vidyalaya scheme (which in turn is part of the larger Swachh Bharat Mission). The company did not specify a timeline. For 2015, the company is targeting 860 toilets by the year-end in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Telangana and Haryana.

“While the cost of building a toilet may increase by 2.5 times with a water connection, unless the toilets have a tap, it is less likely to have any impact,” says Arora. The company is working with local panchayats to get water connection at toilet sites, and providing a tap inside every toilet.

It all began on Independence Day, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “I call upon the corporate sector to give priority to the provision of toilets in schools with your expenditure under corporate social responsibility (CSR)” and company after company signed up to build toilets.

However, many believe that the drive should do more. “Swachh is more than toilets. It is also about waste management, sanitation practices. However, the message that has gone out has been about building toilets and corporates have gone for the low-hanging fruit (of building toilets),” says V. Ravichandar, a member of the Bangalore Agenda Task Force, which brought together citizens, firms and administrative agencies to address civic issues in Bengaluru. He estimates 30% of the CSR funds in 2015-16 will go into building toilets.

“For a company, building toilets shows instant results; it is about numbers and ticking a box. They are currently measuring it based on output and not outcome,” adds Ravichandar, explaining why toilet-building is such a favoured part of the Swachh Bharat Mission.

Historically, toilet-building has been adopted under different avatars and over Rs.18,500 crore has been spent (according to a 2010 World Bank report) over the last two decades to build about 70 million toilets. Still, census 2011 showed that 70% of rural households and 19% of urban households lack toilets, and about 60% of the population still defecate in the open. The figures should tell us that the real challenge is not building toilets, but what follows after. “We have an abysmal maintenance culture, or rather, toilet programmes scarcely consider local realities and cultures,” says Dharmesh Shah, a member of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, an international network for waste management.

Ravichandar says “Behaviour change takes years to achieve. It is about undoing a habit that has been around for decades.”

For their part, a few companies are working to raise awareness on the use of the toilets itself. “It took as up to a year to create awareness in some villages. We targeted women and adolescent girls as they are the worst affected,” says Sushama Oza, director, strategy and sustainability, Adani Foundation, the non-profit arm of Adani Group, whose businesses span resources, logistics, agribusiness and energy. The foundation has spent about Rs.15 crore to supply building material for 4,000 toilets over the last eight years. It uses community mobilizers who work with local volunteers, self-help groups and the gram panchayats to stage periodic interventions through individual interactions and community meetings to raise awareness about using toilets.

“Toilets became a talking point, among young girls especially, and that created peer pressure to have them built at home,” adds Oza. Similarly, mines and minerals-focused Vedanta Group has supported the building of 15,000 toilets over the last three years. Homeowners had to make a contribution in the actual construction of the project, to ensure their commitment to owning and maintaining the toilet, said Roma Balwani, president, sustainability, CSR and communications, Vedanta Group.

However, when it comes to maintenance and monitoring of toilets, companies feel they can only have a limited impact.

“The magnitude of building toilets is huge. Identifying beneficiaries is a huge exercise in itself. Maintenance and repairs is something that the communities will have to take care of; we will have mechanisms to monitor, but the onus is on them,” says Vijay Chadda, chief executive of Bharti Foundation, which is spending Rs.100 crore on behalf of Bharti Enterprises to build more than 20,000 toilets in all the 918 villages of Ludhiana.

“We are conducting awareness campaigns targeting children and women who will be the ultimate beneficiaries of this. Once we hand over, it is their personal property,” Chadda says.

Arora of TCS says maintenance cannot be a long-term initiative. “We need a standard operating model to ensure maintenance and we are working out the modalities of this. We are looking at a technology intervention where a report can be sent to people who built the toilet, so that immediate intervention can be taken. Eventually, it is the school which will need to take care of the maintenance,” says Arora.

Toyota Kirloskar Motor Pvt. Ltd will take this approach too. The car maker built 420 toilets at a cost of Rs.84 lakh around its factory in Bidadi in Karnataka about six years ago. However, at the end of first year, it found that people were using them to store grains, says Shekar Viswanathan, vice-chairman and whole-time director, Toyota Kirloskar. This time around, the company is building 500 toilets for schools in Bidadi, Varanasi and Vaishali at a cost of Rs.4 crore. “We will partner with an NGO to handle maintenance of the toilets for a year, as that will be critical long term use, and we will gradually hand it over to schools for maintenance,” says Viswanathan.

When it comes to building toilets, companies are opting for traditional, low-cost options even though a host of new technologies are available.

Toilet builders such as Kerala-based Eram Scientific Solutions Pvt. Ltd, who offer electronic toilets say the current campaign leaves little scope for innovation.

“Everyone is looking at only brick-and-mortar toilets because the government is promoting it and also due to the cost,” says Anvar Sadath, CEO of Eram. The solar-powered toilets need negligible manual maintenance. “The cost of brick-and-mortar toilets is incomplete without adding the cost of maintenance, cleaning, man hours required for the upkeep and the costs involved in disposing the waste collected in such units,” says Sadath.

If those costs are included, it may add as much as Rs.30,000-60,000 to the cost—not much lower than the electronic toilet, which costs about Rs.1 lakh a unit. Eram is in talks with TCS to set up 400 school toilets in Andhra Pradesh, which may be the biggest project for e-toilets.

At present, companies say solutions are not cost-effective enough to carry out on a large scale. “We decided on the twin-leach pit model after researching what will best suit rural conditions and this was the most cost-effective solution that is suitable for a large-scale operations,” says Chadda of Bharti Foundation.

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