NEW DELHI—A group of young social entrepreneurs is trying to solve some pertinent sanitation problems in India by building public toilets with materials that lower carbon emissions.
Ashwini Agarwal, 31, was a student at the Delhi College of Art and Commerce when he made his first public toilet in 2015 outside one of India’s largest public hospitals, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). The hospital was adjacent to another big hospital, The Safdarjung, and the bus stops outside the hospitals were always crowded.
Since there were no public urinals, desperate commuters were relieving themselves on the walls outside the hospitals creating a decency and hygienic hazard.
Agarwal created prototypes of male public urinals using discarded water cans, which cost only 200 rupees ($2.50) per unit.
The innovation won Agarwal the second prize at The World Water Forum in Seoul in 2016 in the category of Sanitation and Hygiene and earned him the seed funding of 500,000 rupees ($6,000).
“It gave me the money to evolve the design,” said Agarwal in his tiny studio in the congested suburb of Narojini in New Delhi.
Inspired by the response to his innovation, Agarwal created a DIY video of the urinal for social media, which got him numerous queries from around India. His simple idea held great value for the world’s second most populated country, which faces urban congestion and a dire need for sanitation solutions in diverse contexts.
“I got queries from many, including housewives who were seeking sanitation solutions in congested homes, like problems due to having a common wall between kitchen and toilet,” said Agarwal.
Agarwal had also done a survey at the beginning of his public sanitation mission: “What is more important—TV or toilet?”
“During the survey, I found out that the majority of labor class people have a TV but no toilets in their home, which is a basic human need. There I got the idea to create basic essential products, which was primarily toilets,” said Agarwal of his quest that started at the same time as Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, India’s flagship campaign on universal sanitation coverage in 2014.
With the first discarded-water can urinal began a courageous career in sanitation innovation that eventually evolved into creating toilets with recycled plastic to lower carbon emissions. Agarwal’s organization today is called Basic SHIT (Sanitation and Hygiene Innovative Technology).
His career choice of making toilets while the rest of his peers were busy choosing lucrative jobs in more socially accepted fields did not immediately win over his family, but after they saw his idea gaining global recognition in Seoul they started taking it seriously. One of his teammates, however, had to leave the studio because his fiancé’s family couldn’t accept it.
“Relatives ask, ‘What are you doing?!’ People in our team were finding it difficult to get married,” said Agarwal.
Today Basic SHIT consists of 6-7 people: architects, designers, and scientists, and the organization networks with other NGOs. Among other things, it also provides sanitation solutions for large public events like film and music festivals.
Innovating Public Toilets
As a student, Agarwal first created coin-operated toilets using iron and steel fabrications and piloted three units in New Delhi.
“It was doing well. Each toilet was earning around 600-750 rupees ($8-10) every day and it had turned self-sustaining,” said Agarwal, adding that each toilet recycled water and also had a planter. But just when the team thought of scaling it up in the capital, challenges arose.
“Soon people started putting stones and folded paper instead of coins,” said Agarwal, adding that’s when he first thought that idea wouldn’t work.
People were also getting locked inside. “You are trying to solve problems but you are creating more problems,” he said.
It was then that the team started looking for better solutions.
Meanwhile, the urinals that the company installed outside the AIIMS are no longer there and the organization is in the process of setting up its new public toilets built with recycled plastic in South Delhi.
Banala Dinesh, a lawyer and fellow with Basic SHIT who’s in the process of filing a patent for the new toilet design, said the team is also innovating for new designs for rural areas and urinals for highways and marketplaces.
He said that India needs continuous innovation in sanitation and toilet technology and design because of rapid urbanization and the diversity of contexts.
“If you ever get a chance, check out the under subway in front of AIIMS metro, hundreds of people sleep there, they usually are the relatives of the patients. There are no toilets there,” said Dinesh.
Agarwal said that today his team also works on calamity technology and has the capacity to set up toilets in five days in wake of disasters such as earthquakes.
Farmers’ Protest and Lockdown
When India’s farmer protest was happening in the outskirts of the capital, crowds had gathered at New Delhi’s border.
Tents were pitched, make-shift residences came up, kitchens were set up, but public toilets remained an issue and that’s when Basic SHIT came in.
The initiative caught the attention of the Indian media and this encouraged Agarwal and the team to set up a crowdfunding campaign that pooled 18 lakhs ($23,750).
Meanwhile, the team had already started working with recycled plastic and when public toilets stopped being used during the lockdown, Basic SHIT started designing and producing alternative products from the same materials.
“We have created a squat stool that Indians can use with the western toilet. This stool that weighs 5 kilograms (11 pounds) prevents 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of carbon emissions into the environment,” said Sahaj Umang Singh, 29, a colleague of Agarwal.
Other products they make from recycled plastic include laptop stands, planters, and public cigarette bins. The organization has plans to introduce cigarette bins in public places and recycle cigarette butts like plastic into fabrication material.
“Each kilogram of recycled plastic we use saves 8 kilograms of carbon emissions from the environment,” said Singh adding that the group has created a new dry toilet that uses sawdust instead of water. Dry toilets are not a new concept in India but because waste disposal was always a problem, they are not encouraged.
Basic SHIT’s new sawdust toilet aims to solve both the water scarcity problem as well as the problem of waste disposal by onsite composting.
The team, however, is hoping for more ease of business, saying that the Indian government should remove taxes on recycled plastic to make it a more affordable material.
“There was a time when there was 18 percent GST [Goods and Service Tax] on sanitary napkins in India. Then a public advocacy campaign helped make it tax-free for Indian women. Today we have to pay 18 percent GST on recycled plastic,” said Agarwal.
Dinesh said that the team is trying to make their toilet technology simpler so that it can be made by people where it is most needed.