Swachh Bharat : big potential for start-ups

8th January 2016, BUSINESS STANDARD

India has 8 ‘unicorns’, which are start-ups where fund-raising has established a company valuation of $1 billion. Indian entrepreneurs always seek innovative ideas. The most banal human activity offers an opportunity.

8th January 2016, BUSINESS STANDARD

India has 8 ‘unicorns’, which are start-ups where fund-raising has established a company valuation of $1 billion. Indian entrepreneurs always seek innovative ideas. The most banal human activity offers an opportunity.

I foresee that Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) will experience an upsurge in 2016. SBM deals with the not-so-nice subject of open defecation. During the last year I learnt about all the exciting things that happened in 2015 with regard to our everyday act.

I must recall that in the 1950s, since ‘breast’ was considered inappropriate by the editorial standards of NYT, an article about breast cancer was painstakingly reworded to render it NYT-worthy: mercifully editorial standards have changed now! Before SBM was announced by the PM, I had written an Innocolumn (BS, 17th April 2014) about sanitation and how 57% of Indians defecate in the open compared to 5% in Bangladesh. I had titled it with a commonly used word for defecation, but the editor dropped the S-word to conform to BS’s editorial policy. I respected the editor’s decision with the hope that, like with breast cancer, someday in the future, the activity will be called by its better understood name.

According to its website, SBM has government funding of Rs. 160,000 crores, has built half a million toilets during the year and has 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 as western’ 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, Jody 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 have also arrived under their brand Squatty Potty, launched in 2012 and positioned as ‘the stool for better stools.’ Over 2 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. During 2015, San Francisco city officials implemented a new ‘pee-proof’ paint around the city to combat the persistent problem of public urination. Public Works crews have 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, will spray back at the person relieving himself, potentially hitting his clothes or shoes. Public urination has been a chronic issue in San Francisco for a long time. In 2002, the city passed legislation banning public urination and imposing a $50 to $100 fine for offenders, but the ban has had little to no impact on the problem.

It was also during 2015 that social entrepreneur, Joe Madiath of Gram Vikas, spoke at TED about better toilets and hygiene. He has said that it is very fashionable to speak in glowing terms about food in all its forms, but after the food is digested, the crap is considered revolting to speak about.

With all of these having occurred during 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 PM wants fresh ideas from his bureaucracy though cynics think this to be an oxymoron. My 2016 wish is that innovations through Swachh Bharat will attract funding and some ‘unicorn’ might emerge: for sure, this unicorn will be for real whereas the others may be suspect!

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