Home >Opinion >Toilets need more loving

This week, millions of moviegoers in India will head to the theatres to watch Akshay Kumar fight his family and friends to build a toilet inside his home, for the love of his wife. Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (Toilet: A Love Story) is perhaps the first mainstream feature film ever made in India to highlight the sanitation plight in India.

According to World Health Organization figures, 2.3 billion people around the globe lack access to proper sanitation. It is estimated that one-fourth of these people live in India.

The prime minister’s initiative to “Clean India" by 2019 are laudable. The government’s exhortations have imbued the topic of sanitation with an urgency and focus that it had lacked previously. Since October 2014, after the launch of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission), the ministry of drinking water and sanitation’s website indicates that 45 million toilets have been built in rural India alone.

Sure, this is progress, but in the three years since the launch of the Abhiyan, it is clear that building new toilets addresses only one aspect of the problem. The bigger challenge is the lack of ongoing maintenance for the toilets after they have been built. This is especially true in schools where, often, toilets exist but remain unused because children find them dirty and smelly; girls may even find them unsafe.

Sometimes it is the simplest of things—fixing the door latch to ensure privacy, replenishing the bar of soap, washing the toilet with disinfectant, replacing a fused bulb—that can make a difference when it comes to toilet use.

These might seem like banal things to talk about but until these things are taken care of, Indians will not fall in love with their toilets. This is especially true when it comes to children, the best change agents to drive new behaviour.

Toilets can change lives, but only if they work. And if they do not work for children, we fail altogether to usher in change.

At Kimberly-Clark, to further our goal for children to want to use the toilets that have been built and feel a sense of ownership for their upkeep, we decided to concentrate our corporate social responsibility effort on refurbishing toilets in schools and keeping them clean and functional.

Armed with learnings from our flagship global programme “Toilets Change Lives", since 2016, we have committed ourselves to renovating broken and dysfunctional toilets in over a 100 schools across five states -- Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, West Bengal and Maharashtra. This year, we have renewed our commitment to maintaining every single one of those toilets in addition to undertaking repairs and renovation of toilets in more schools. The total amount spent since 2016 would be over Rs1 crore.

But more solutions are needed. In India, even now, keeping toilets clean is dependent on human intervention. India needs to engineer and design solutions to address these issue. As a co-founder of the Toilet Board Coalition, a business-led public-private partnership of global and multilateral organizations such as Unilever, Firmenich, Unicef, Tata Trusts, World Bank and the Confederation of Indian Industry, Kimberly-Clark is investing to accelerate such innovation.

The India edition of the coalition’s toilet accelerator programme incentivizes “sanipreneurs" to develop business models that can scale toilet innovations—new service models, new ways of waste recovery for the circular economy of waste management, and new digital applications that can address issues facing sanitation in India. This is an opportunity for all companies and organizations to invest in sanitation as part of their CSR and display their commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

It needs no spoiler alert to say that Toilet: Ek Prem Katha ends with Akshay Kumar successfully installing a toilet in his house for his wife. We should wait for the sequel however to see if the toilet he builds in this film remains in the same loved condition after a few years of use.

Suryakant Pandey is managing director of Kimberly-Clark in India

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