Bindeshwar Pathak, Sulabh International
When Bindeshwar was a young boy, his grandmother once made him eat cowdung to “purify” himself, after contact with an untouchable. The same Brahmin boy grew up to lead a movement we know as Sulabh. A revolution in toilets and a rightful place in society, for those who once cleaned them.
In the afternoon the Administrator declared that the toilet block should be ready by tomorrow noon.
Big idea: Bindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh builds clean public toilets. Dirk Waem/AFP
The Chief Engineer panicked. How was that possible? The man was due to retire soon, this would be a black spot on his otherwise illustrious career. In desperation, he turned towards Bindeshwar and asked, “Can you do something?”
Bindeshwar was taken off-guard but, in a fraction of a second he made a bold decision.
So far Sulabh had focused on converting bucket toilets in homes into pit privies. Here was a chance to venture into the public domain.
He smiled and said, “This? No problem at all… We’ll do it by tomorrow!”
The Administrator took out his red ink pen and wrote the work order—on the Chief Engineer’s left hand!
He said, “Take this to the office, get it typed and come back with Rs20,000.”
The money was sanctioned and the Administrator said he would be back the next morning—at 7am—to inspect the completed toilet.
Ab karein kya? Aur kaise?
The spot where the toilet block was to be built was in fact an open air toilet already. Some two to three thousand men and women used the place to relieve themselves each morning. The entire area—and miles around it—stank of human waste.
Bindeshwar had a brainwave. He sent his workers to Koliwar, a place where lal baalu (red sand) was available and had them bring in twenty truckloads.
By this time, it was late evening.
Next, he sent workers to all the maalis (gardeners) in town. They were told to bring as many potted plants, bushes and trees as possible. Whatever the price.
The sand was laid out in the maidan.
The plants were placed, pots hidden, in that layer of sand.
And one pit was dug, and filled up with sweet smelling sandalwood.
The entire area looked good, and smelt good.
By now it was 4am.
Keeping in mind the calculation of 2 cubic feet per person per year for the standard 2 pit toilet, Bindeshwar estimated the space required for 500 people. And multiplied that by 8 cubic feet.
Workers began digging and by 7am—when the Administrator arrived, there were no toilets. But the maidan no longer had the spectacle of men and women displaying their bums and lotas. In its place was a fragrant garden and some work in progress on the toilet block.
“He became so happy, he said, ‘This is looking beautiful’. And he forgot all about the actual toilets, which had not even been built!”
In reality the Administrator had instructions from the Chief Secretary to ‘do something’ about that ugly open air toilet in front of the Reserve Bank within two days. So toilet or no toilet, the goal had been achieved.
More important than letter, is spirit.
Meanwhile in ten days time, the actual toilet block was also up and ready (except for the roof—that came later). It was a pay-for-use toilet—10 paise per visit.
“The government agreed to provide the land free of cost, and pay for the construction. The maintenance was to be covered by charging users.”
The question was, would the man on the street pay? Sceptics said that in Bihar most people travelled ticketless in buses and trains—would they shell out money to use a toilet?
Bindeshwar said, “We will keep it spotlessly clean. They will pay.”
Anita Ahuja, Conserve India
Like many well-to-do women in Delhi, Anita Ahuja took up social work. But, deeply moved by the plight of ragpickers, she decided to do something to improve their lives. Today. Anita and her husband Shalabh run a unique income-generation programme—recycling plastic waste to create beautiful export-quality handbags.
“I decided Conserve would work to improve the life of ragpickers.”
While grant supported programmes continued, side by side, Anita started ‘playing around’ with plastic waste. The typical blue-pink-yellow variety of thailis you see everywhere.
“We were already making compost—using wet waste to create a saleable product. Why not find a use for plastic waste collected by the ragpickers? So, I started experimenting.”
Anita researched the recycling technologies available on the Internet and tried dozens of different things.
“First, I tried weaving and making carpets. But the products that came out looked home-made and were very labour intensive.”
Not financially viable and hard to sell. But despite getting nowhere, Anita kept going. Ultimately she developed a texture of layering the plastic bags together and it came out very nicely.
“I found I could create beautiful patterns and no one could tell this was made from plastic waste at all!”
At first Anita thought she could just make artworks and installations, have an exhibition and try and raise money. But Shalabh—being the more practical of the two—realised it would not work.
“If the objective is to generate income, we have to look at starting a factory.”
The first step in that direction came when Shalabh fabricated a machine which could mass-produce the plastic sheets. Artist creates, engineer automates—a fine example of left brain-right brain collaboration!
“It took us about six months; the whole process of learning how to combine the right colours and make the sheets look pretty. Because if you just put anything then it’s just a sheet; then it doesn’t sell. It looks dirty, like dirty plastic.”
By trial and error Anita produced a portfolio of 200 unique designs. She calls them her 200 ‘paintings’.
Initially, Anita made a few simple things like wine bags and carry bags, files and folders. To do this, she hired a few roadside tailors. The merchandise was sold at embassies which had trade fairs around Diwali season.
“Since we had already worked with the funding agencies, I knew them. So I went and put up a stall at these fairs, “ recalls Anita. The ragpickers were trained to man these stalls and do the selling.
But Anita quickly realised that a wine bag or a file/folder would fetch a maximum of Rs.60-100. The profit margin was slim so there wasn’t much left—to share with the ragpickers.
But, the sale was not in vain. As they say, the customer is queen and when she makes an outlandish demand you stop and ask yourself, “Why didn’t I think of that!”
One woman said, “I really like the colours and texture. Can you make a better bag—a proper handbag—with the same fabric? I’ll pay you a lot more.”
And that’s how Conserve started making well-designed, high-quality handbags. The practical, viable, ‘hot selling’ product she had been searching for all along.
Rashmi Bansal is the author of two best-selling books on entrepreneurship, Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish and Connect the Dots, and the co-founder and editor of JAM magazine. Her new book I Have a Dream launches next week.
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