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Cleaning India – A Business Unusual

Shit, potty, poop, …whatever…. is throwing up new entrepreneurial opportunities in water, sanitation and public health domains.

“I come from a poor family. I have seen poverty. The poor need respect and it begins with cleanliness”Prime Minister Narender Modi, in his first Independence Day speech on August 15, 2014.

On the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, who believed that cleanliness was next to godliness, PM Modi launched Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, a pan-India mission also known as Clean Indian Mission. Aimed at eradicating open defecation across India by October 2, 2019, the Mission identified open defecation as a national political priority. This pan-India mission runs separately for urban and rural India as –

  • Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan (Urban)
  • Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan (Gramin/Rural)

What’s the Mission?
While the Mission has a common goal of 100 per cent eradication of open defecation in India by 2019, components, implementation mechanism, funding and private party participation differs across Urban and Rural Abhiyaan, as the reasons and challenges of open defecation in urban and rural India differ.

Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan (Urban) for instance, aims to ensure:

  • elimination of open defecation,
  • eradication of manual scavenging,
  • modern and scientific municipal solid waste management,
  • behavioural change regarding healthy sanitation practices,
  • awareness about sanitation and its linkage with public health,
  • capacity augmentation for urban local bodies to create an enabling environment for the private sector, and,
  • participation in Capex and Opex.

In the five years post-launch, Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan has brought a string of changes to India’s sanitary state. How? Well, five years ago it would have been highly uncommon to find:

  • an Indian talking openly about matters of shit,
  • India’s prime minister identifying open defecation as a national political priority,
  • Bollywood celebrities – Amitabh Bachchan, Akshay Kumar, Priyanka Chopra, to name a few – wielding brooms or campaigning for a clean India or hygiene products on social media,
  • government employees cleaning their places of work,
  • romantic movie names featuring ‘toilet’ – Toilet: A Love Story earned more than Rs 180 million ($2.3 million) at the box office,
  • women in rural India (sometimes) rejecting marriage proposals if the prospective partner’s home lacked a toilet facility,
  • advertisement campaigns promoting hygiene products whilst conveying a message of behavioural change,
  • artworks in public spaces and social media promoting behavioural change or altering perspectives of open defecation and sanitary taboos in the Indian society,
  • construction of over 90 million new toilets across India,
  • sanitation entering business boardrooms beyond the mandates of corporate social responsibility.

State of Affairs
In the past five years, a lot has changed in the sanitary state of India, a country where sanitation and everything and everyone linked to sanitation is considered dirty. The notion of ‘dirty’ in India’s sanitation history finds roots in the Laws of Manu, famously known as the Manav Dharma Shastra of 500 BC, which identified toilets and the caste cohort ‘responsible’ for cleaning them as untouchables, thereby calling for their social and spatial separation from places of habitation.

Of course, there are several leaks in this change. Several of these broom-wielding actions are a public stunt. Millions of these ‘new’ toilets lie unused. Thousands of ‘old’ toilets, built prior to Clean India Mission by local governments and city or state governments, lie defunct or in a dreadful state. But, let’s discard the black and white spectacles with which we love to perceive the world. We cannot not applaud the massive change the Mission has brought in a matter of five years, a change India never once witnessed in its 72-plus years of Independence, particularly in the business of sanitation.

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Business of Sanitation
When it comes to the business of sanitation, one needs to understand that sanitation is everybody’s business, often the first deed of the day. This business of sanitation, in simplistic terms, can be understood as a chain of activities that begins with doing the business, followed by collection, transportation, treatment of waste, and ends with disposal of the treated waste.

In this chain, we find fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies like Dabur, Reckitt Benckiser and Hindustan Unilever focusing on the first link – doing the business of pee or poop – by marketing products (hand wash, soaps, sanitisers, wipes, antiseptics, cleaners, etc.) that promote the habit of cleanliness. Some businesses and non-profits also join hands for social purposes, promoting and raising awareness of health and hygiene. There are companies like Jaquar, Kohler & Co and Hindware that dominate the second link of the sanitation chain by manufacturing and supplying sanitary ware and flushing systems. When it comes to the transportation, treatment and disposal, it is a city or local government that manages this sanitary business. In essence, there is a lot that can be done and a lot that businesses can explore when it comes to sanitation.

For decades, private businesses and public sector undertakings (PSUs) have been contributing to India’s development efforts through corporate social responsibility initiatives. Since the launch of Clean India Mission, corporates have also been spending a dedicated Clean India Fund or Swachh Bharat Kosh to improve the sanitary state of urban and rural India.

Beyond these resource mobilisation efforts, Clean India Mission has led to the emergence of a variety of entrepreneurial setups and business strategies in the sanitation domain. As soon as the Mission was launched in 2014, corporate offices of Dabur, Larsen & Toubro, Unitech, Tata Consultancy Services and PSUs such as Indian Oil and NTPC started exploring opportunities to join the movement.

NDTV and Dettol, for instance, partnered for campaigns promoting Clean India Mission from 2014-19. In September 2019, as India was getting ready to complete five years of Clean India Mission, the partnership’s focus shifted from cleaning India to healthy India – from swachhta to swastha. Consumer goods companies like Reckitt Benckiser and Hindustan Unilever saw the opportunity to blend the marketing efforts for their home-cleaning and toilet-cleaning products with the pan-India Mission, a creative blend producing a significant increase in the sales of toilet cleaners.

Opportunities for Entrepreneurs
Apart from these large corporate and public sector enterprises, entrepreneurs from around the world have been on the lookout for the right opportunity to tap into India’s sanitary momentum. Several have come and gone, but a few persistent ones are monetising sanitation through support services, technology and maintenance. In fact, PM Modi in 2015 called upon banks to help support one lakh swachhta entrepreneurs – an entrepreneur involved in wastewater management and treatment – per year. Another scheme of the Centre – Swachhta Udyami Yojana – encourages start-ups by providing concessional loan to build community toilet projects and sanitation-related vehicles to collect the waste.

Today, when the world has been rattled by COVID19, the importance of Clean India, health, hygiene (and toilet papers!) cannot be understated. With this rising demand for cleaner, healthier and hygienic spaces, a new line of business and entrepreneurial opportunities is also emerging in water, sanitation and public health domains. There are companies and entrepreneurs around the world that are monetising sanitation to build artificial intelligence (AI) for research in gut-related diseases, creating a pop-up poop culture and immersive experiences, working on medical breakthroughs, mining poop, to generate bio-fuel- to name a few. In essence, there’s a lot happening in the (business) world of poop.

Can India tap into this unusual business of shit? Absolutely! Only time (and mindful planning) will tell how impactful these ventures will be.

About the author
A medicine candidate turned urban planner, Mahak Agrawal explores innovative, implementable, impactful solutions for pressing urban-regional challenges. In different capacities, Mahak has worked with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Town and Country Planning Organization, Government of India, Institute of Transport Economics, Oslo, to name a few. In the past few months, Mahak has used her skills and connections to build an enterprise The Spatial Perspectives. The business uses the power of visual storytelling and open data to communicate 360-degree perspectives, all the time.


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