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Don’t look at toilets as an infrastructural issue, see how you can drive demand: expert

| | Updated on: Jan 19, 2015
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Cleanliness is the first step. If you can make toilets a comfortable experience, people will be ready to pay and use them.

Jack Sim, 57, founder of the Restroom Association of Singapore and World Toilet Organisation, wants to make ‘toilet’ a fashionable word. Formerly in the construction industry, he founded the World Toilet Organisation in 2001, and is in Delhi for the World Toilet Summit. While enthused by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s focus on making India open defecation-free, Jack feels unless India creates aspirations for toilets, these may end up being used as storerooms. Edited excerpts:

How do you see yourself contributing to India’s sanitation drive?

In India, urban sanitation is very critical because there is no land. So, clean community toilets are necessary. Those that exist are disgusting in terms of cleanliness. Maintaining cleanliness is, therefore, key to making toilet use a happy experience. Once that is done, people are ready to pay and use. That is the only way toilet use can be made sustainable.

But isn’t cleanliness closely linked with water, which is a problem in urban India?

See, whatever water is there, can be used. The problem in India is leakage and wastage. We first have to make people interested in using toilets.

How will you create interest in a poor person to pay and use toilets?

How will we raise aspirations among the poor? Well, they have cell phones. Why? Because if one has it, the other wants it, too, not for communication but protection against criticism…that can be done for toilets as well.

After all, capitalism has survived on aspirational marketing. In India the problem of open defecation is largely seen as an infrastructure issue. But, if we make toilets desirable and comfortable, people will be willing to pay. And once revenue comes in, good service can be sustained.

Sulabh is already running clean toilets in urban centres. What role do you see for yourself?

Our objective is to identify different solutions, say, designing low-income simple solutions as well as community toilets. In India, toilets are being built with an infrastructure vision, which defeats the purpose. It is known that built toilets are being used as store rooms, as this vision does not look at driving demand.

How can demand be driven?

Design and architecture is one aspect, which we will showcase (in the summit). What we are focussing on is the behavioural aspect. We will reposition the toilet as a source of happiness, a desirable place, a fashion statement. We plan to rope in celebrities and religious leaders to speak on this so that it is not a taboo subject…. Toilets need to made a status a symbol.

What about maintenance?

In Japan, a toilet cleaner’s first lesson is that his job will create an impact in society, he feels a high moral responsibility, like a health officer.

With professionalism and good salaries, the mindset that only Dalits do such a job in India can also change, as toilet designs and modern cleaning equipment will minimise the use of hands, lending respectability to the job.

Finally, how did you pick the subject of toilets?

After the age of 40, I realised I was selling my time to make money. We can’t buy time. So I am now exchanging my time for higher values. I went for toilets because it is a neglected, unspeakable subject. I wanted to make it a happy, humorous subject. United Nations has also taken up the subject.

And now it has become a vote bank. Once politicians started getting themselves photographed next to toilets, business came in, and demand started going up.

Published on January 24, 2018

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