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Swachh Bharat: A big opportunity for start-ups

January 08, 2016 10:10 IST

The government's Swachh Bharat programme presents entrepreneurs with a chance to curb open defecation and make money in the process, R Gopalakrishnan.


India has eight "Unicorns" - start-ups where fundraising has established a company valuation of $1 billion or above. Indian entrepreneurs always seek innovative ideas. The most banal human activity offers an opportunity.

I foresee the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) experiencing an upsurge in 2016. SBM also deals with the not-so-nice subject of open defecation.

Last year, I learnt about all the exciting things that took place during it with regard to our everyday act.

I must recall that in the 1950s, when "breast" was considered inappropriate by the editorial standards of The New York Times (NYT), an article on breast cancer was painstakingly reworded to render it NYT-worthy.

Mercifully, editorial standards have changed since then. Before SBM was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, I had written an Innocolumn (April 17, 2014) on sanitation and how 57 per cent of Indians defecate in the open compared to five per cent in Bangladesh.

I had titled it with a commonly used word for defecation, but the editor dropped the S-word to conform with Business Standard's editorial policy.

I respected the editor's decision with the hope that, like with breast cancer, someday, the activity will be called by its better understood name.

According to the SBM website, the mission has government funding of Rs 1.6 lakh crore; it has built half a million toilets during the year and generated national awareness. In fact, defecation has attracted international attention!

In an enduring and endearing book, Gut, Giulia Enders explains how the human colon (puborectalis muscle) becomes straight when a person squats as compared to sitting on a commode; that is why the Eastern habit of squatting is effective compared to the Western way of sitting (note the absence of "h").

I consider "sitting" a Western habit because, to be light-hearted, King Louis IV had his throne made with an inbuilt loo!

The very successful Piku elucidated and exemplified "the technical position", with imaginative dialogues by celebrated actors.

In 2010, an American woman got relief from constipation by simulating the squatting position.

The satisfied mother, Judy Edwards, and her enterprising son, Robert, designed a top-of-the-pyramid footstool and Americans are buying it for $25.

A range of supporting accessories has also arrived under their brand, Squatty Potty that was launched in 2012 and positioned as "the stool for better stools".

More than two million Squatty Potty items have been sold since then, with 11 million YouTube viewings; the innovation apparently sold very well as a Christmas gift in 2015!

The problem is not about defecation alone. In 2015, San Francisco city officials implemented a new "pee-proof" paint around the city to combat the persistent problem of public urination.

Public works crew painted 10 walls in the city with a special UV-coated, urine-repellent paint. If an offender tries to urinate on a wall coated with the super hydrophobic paint, the urine, instead of running down the wall, sprays back at him, potentially hitting his clothes and shoes.

Public urination has been a chronic issue in San Francisco. In 2002, the city passed legislation banning public urination and imposing a $50 to $100 fine on offenders, but the ban has had little or no impact on curbing the problem.

It was also in 2015 that social entrepreneur Joe Madiath of Gram Vikas spoke about better toilets and hygiene at a TED conference.

He said it was fashionable to speak in glowing terms about food in all its forms, but after the food was digested, the crap was considered revolting to speak about. 

With all these events having occurred in 2015, it is not unreasonable to expect great strides and thrusts to make for a happy 2016.

The Indian business womb is pregnant with entrepreneurship and start-ups; within government, the prime minister wants fresh ideas from his bureaucracy although cynics think this is an oxymoron.

My 2016 wish is that innovations through the SBM attracts funding and some unicorn emerges. This unicorn will be for real whereas the others may be suspect!

The writer is director, Tata Sons.

R Gopalakrishnan
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