By R Gopalakrishnan, Author and Corporate Advisor
To illustrate that innovation is possible even with a subject like open defecation (OD), I had written two earlier columns (BS 18th April 2014 and 8th Jan 2016). The popular perception seems to be that OD occurs due to a lack of toilets. OD is much more complex. Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) encompasses issues of public health, sociology, psychology, innovation and technology, all rolled into one. The major thrust of the government policies seems to have been to provide toilets to people. Surveys by social institutions suggest that in addition to providing toilet facilities, a positive social and behavior change is required to be brought about. Hence technology and innovation need. to work with other disciplines of knowledge. This is sought to be achieved through the Social and Behavior Change Communication elements of SBM.
Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, a true Gandhian, has demonstrated the value of grassroots work by setting up Sulabh, an outstanding institution in Delhi, wholly devoted to social, technological and psychological vectors of sanitation (www.sulabhinternational.org). I was humbled and fascinated by the accomplishments of his institute, including a world toilet museum and multiple models of toilets; deep, practical insight from action and experimentation rather than mere talking. The visitor is exposed to low cost ideas, ranging from single pit, double pit, open-to-air and bio-gas recovery; one can discuss innovation queries like squatting versus sitting position, vacuum evacuation (as in planes) and pee-proof, hydrophobic painting of walls!
Recently at a Delhi conference, Minister Venkaiah Naidu warned habitual and deliberate OD offenders. I was intrigued to learn that some people, guessed to be maybe 40-50 million people, out of 500 million, practice OD in spite of having access to toilets. It would seem that they require ‘policing’, a bit like traffic constables are needed at traffic lights or to ensure the use of crash helmets. But imagine how much manpower would be required, it would be impractical! I first spoke with Prof BS Das of IIT, Kharagpur and, separately with IIT Bombay alumnus, Ankit Mehta. They startled me with the possibility that low-cost drone technology can be deployed for policing persistent open defecators! I felt it was a very innovative idea, if done sensitively.
Prof B S Das has prepared a proposal titled “Monitoring Defecation Using Optical and Near-Infrared Reflectance Spectroscopy”. His proposal essentially considers using ‘diffuse reflectance spectroscopy’ of the soil to create spectral reflectance data of OD areas. Once a base dataset is created, sample data can be captured monthly, and overlaid on a GIS platform or backbone. Comparing with a library of standard data can help determine where to focus. A low-cost drone could serve as the air borne platform. Further this monitoring mechanism can also feed the integrated MIS reporting under the Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation, which is responsible for SBM effectiveness monitoring.
Ankit Mehta is the co-founder and CEO of ideaForge, which, he told me, has the capability and expertise to deliver such low cost drones. These can be used for communication as well as for hyperspectral data gathering. Thus optimization of the drone as a resource is possible. Drones can be deployed under the social and behavior change framework of the government’s program and could be used effectively in both individual and community communication initiatives. Drones could also become effective by their novelty factor. In order to take care of any privacy/shaming concerns, the drones can as well be fitted only with loud speakers and no photography payload and will need to have a GPS-based autonomous operation feature.
Ancient wisdom teaches us that the human body is a combination of three “pipes.” First is the neuro-electrical wiring from the lower spine to the cranium; second is the air pipe from nose through lungs; and finally, the solids and liquids pipe from mouth through the abdomen to the point of excretion. In his TED talk, Kerala social activist, Joe Madiath, wonders why mankind makes so much fuss about fine dining and cuisine, all of which ends up in exactly the same way. In the interests of getting things done, like with all complex subjects, unnecessary controversy is best avoided: for example, highlighting that OD was sanctioned by the 700 BC Baudhayana Sutras (Economist, 19th July 2014), which, anyway, is counter-ntuitive to the earlier and amazing Harappan toilet system. These were long before modern western-style sanitation started only two centuries ago with the French cabinet de toilet.
Perhaps the PM’s Swachh Bharat point man can explore appropriate drones with Ankit Mehta and BS Das.