Why are companies reluctant to embrace tech in sanitation drive?

Swachh Bharat mission attracts plenty of CSR funding, but firms shy away from investing in innovative solutions

Moyna Manku
Updated1 Jul 2016, 12:46 PM IST
Hyundai started building toilets as far back as 2010 and assigns close to Rs50 lakh from its CSR corpus for the same every year.<br />
Hyundai started building toilets as far back as 2010 and assigns close to Rs50 lakh from its CSR corpus for the same every year.

New Delhi: The ambitious call for a sanitized and clean India, or Swachh Bharat, by 2019 has seen unprecedented participation by both private and government-owned companies in the past two years. Besides stand-alone projects, firms have contributed 42 crore from their corporate social responsibility (CSR) kitty to the Swachh Bharat Kosh in 2014-15, as per a written answer in the Lok Sabha by the ministry of corporate affairs (MCA) in May.

The Swachh Bharat campaign was announced soon after the CSR Rules came into force on 1 April 2014 and this prompted many firms to channel their funds to the campaign. CSR Rules, which fall under the purview of Section 135 of the Companies Act, 2013, require firms with a net worth of 500 crore or revenue of 1,000 crore or a net profit of 5 crore to spend 2% of their average profit of the previous three years on social development activities such as sanitation, environment protection and rural development.

Despite the outpouring of corporate support and buzz around Swachh Bharat, the contributions have not had the desired impact. Earlier this year, the National Sample Survey Organisation’s (NSSO) Swachhatta report, based on a rapid survey conducted during May-June 2015 of 3,788 villages and 2,907 urban blocks, found that in 22.6% villages, community toilets were not being cleaned. In around 44% of the villages surveyed, there was no drainage arrangement, while 63% of wards did not have a liquid waste disposal system for toilets.

To address these concerns and create sustainable models, experts suggest adoption of technology and innovation in toilets. “There is need for technology interventions at every stage of the sanitation value chain—build, use, maintain and treat. Overall, sanitation has not seen much innovation in the last 30 years, and certainly not enough to answer the many challenges that face developing countries with low resources,” says Naina Lal Kidwai, chair, India Sanitation Coalition (ISC), a platform set up under the aegis of Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) for bringing together various stakeholders in the sanitation space. The large participation of companies in the sanitation drive as part of CSR has been largely restricted to building toilets, says Niraj Seth, CSR head and director-advisory services at professional services firm EY India.

With the focus on achieving set targets of construction, most companies think it’s best to go with well-established models like the twin-pit system rather than consider innovative approaches like bio-digester, solar-powered and waste-recycling toilets, Seth explains.

In a twin-pit system toilet, two leach pits are connected to one single pour-flush toilet. The toilet designed by Sulabh International, Bindeshwar Pathak’s not-for-profit started in the 1960s, is popular because it costs only between 7,500 and 30,000 to put up. Agri giant Monsanto India, for instance, announced in June that it is going to take up the construction of close to 2,500 toilets. Despite exploring various technologies and innovations, Arnab Das, director, CSR and Sustainability at Monsanto India, says the firm chose the twin-pit sanitation model because “technology creates a curiosity to try, but without investments in the software aspects, the risk of non-use remains high. At Monsanto, through our engagement, we have explored plans for using new technologies like prefabricated toilet units and bio-toilets, but find the softer aspects of community sensitization efforts over a period of time to be the biggest enablers of success”.

K. Sridar, head of Hyundai Motor India Foundation, the philanthropic arm of automobile company Hyundai Motor India Ltd, cites community choice as the reason for going with the tried and tested twin-pit model for the toilets the foundation is building. “If other models are tried, people are not as accepting largely due to unfamiliarity,” he said. The car manufacturer started building toilets as far back as 2010 and assigns close to 50 lakh from its CSR corpus for the purpose every year. “Our job is to fulfil people’s dreams and that is what we aim to do through our CSR initiatives. People want toilets, we give them toilets. Stakeholders must get to decide the kind of toilets they want,” Sridar adds. For packaged consumer products firm Dabur India Ltd, adoption of a sanitation model is decided by the beneficiary, which picks up part of the cost. It is about “creating ownership”, says A. Sudhakar, CSR head, Dabur.

Yet, there some companies that have embraced technology. Like fast-moving consumer goods company, RB India, of the Dettol fame, which believes if technology empowers and makes an initiative more efficient, it should be adopted. Since 2014, the firm has constructed over 10,000 toilets with a mix of Defence Research and Development Organisation’s (DRDO) bio-digester technology, aerobic bio-digesters, bio-blocks, EnviroLoo and twin-pit models.

“It required proper evaluation dealing with cost, utility, reach, adaptability, scalability and sustainability. The challenge here is to identify the right technology and the partner for implementation, as both are extremely critical for success,” says Nitish Kapoor, South Asia regional director, RB. Priya Naik, CEO of CSR consultancy firm Samhita, points out, “Firms who responded to the call of Swachh Bharat can be divided into two types—companies that were focused on achieving milestones within the time prescribed by the government. They chose to work with established players because it helped them get scale and achieve their commitments within a limited period of time. And, others who looked to address the root of the problem, working with communities to try and meet all needs. The latter have adopted more innovative solutions and are still in the process of scaling up,” she explains. Tight timelines and too many activities lead to loss of innovation in CSR projects, she believes.

K.K. Upadhyay, former head of CSR at FICCI Aditya Birla CSR Centre for Excellence, says the reason why firms went with the twin-pit model over other available tech in the market is the fact that it is an established model. “You get the vendors for this, reporting is easy. More so, you can hire vendors to construct these, artisans and equipment are available locally,” he explains.

Besides, “there is not enough research available to convince the companies about the success of using technology in toilets,” adds Seth.

Firms are unsure about experimenting, she says. While there are many solutions like non-sewer based waste water treatment technology for areas where there is no sewer line available, “all these are not always financially viable alternatives”, she adds. However, entrepreneurs like Namita Banka, founder and CEO of Banka Bio-loo Pvt. Ltd, says it is a misconception to say that technology is expensive. “Companies have been focused on the government subsidy of 12,000 per unit and that is why they have been hesitant to look at alternative technology,” she says. Her company is best known for adapting DRDO’s bio-digester toilet model using local raw materials and thereby bringing down costs significantly.

“When we started out in 2012, one bio-toilet would cost around 3-4 lakh and today we have models on offer starting at 30,000,” says Banka. She adds that the cost of technology is just 10-15% of the whole toilet structure and usually those constructing toilets get side-tracked by the superstructure—walls, tiles, light fixtures, overhead tank, etc.—thereby increasing the cost significantly. Chariton Enterprises, a start-up, offers “smart toilet” models, which are said to save 70-80% on water use. Besides being are solar powered, their designs are clog-free, anti-odour and anti-vandal, among other things. Co-founders Villot Cardozo and Bhavana Mehta have been approaching firms, institutions, large philanthropic organizations and even government agencies to set up these toilets but the response has been lukewarm. “The concept and model is loved by most firms when we present the model, but eventually firms are not too keen to take up newer tech,” says Mehta. Currently, a Chariton toilet costs 1.5 lakh but Mehta says the cost can come down drastically with scale.

With an over 50-year history of government-subsidized toilet construction under various programmes, experts like Kidwai believe that technology should be playing a bigger role in overcoming sanitation problems. Technology needs to focus on consumer needs/habits and provide solutions appropriate for low-resource (energy, water, money) environments, which in turn can help governments scale solutions faster, she suggests. “For instance, non-sewered/decentralized solutions for fecal waste treatment can help us address the huge problem of untreated, pathogen-ridden waste entering our soil, water and food,” explains Kidwai, citing a Central Pollution Control Board report which states that 70% of sewage generated in urban India is not treated.

“Corporates are essential not only for investing through CSR but also for creating these innovative technologies. Entrepreneurship across the value chain will play a critical role in overhauling the sanitation space. The ISC is working closely with corporates to not only fill this gap in infrastructure but also to benefit from their manufacturing creativity to create a sustainable, safe sanitation ecosystem in the country,” adds Kidwai.

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First Published:1 Jul 2016, 12:46 PM IST
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