Some would say that Swapnil Chaturvedi was living the American dream. A graduate from Northwestern University, he held a software engineering job and lived comfortably in America with his wife and daughter.
Then in 2007, he returned to his native India where he realized his true purpose in life was to help the country’s poor. On his trip he witnessed and questioned the enormous income disparity and the lifestyle discrepancies between the poor and the rich. He was appalled by India’s lack of basic sanitation.
Almost 626 million of the 1.2 billion individuals in India do not have access to a working toilet. Defecating in the open can create extremely unsanitary conditions, leading to diseases and malnutrition. Even when there are working toilets, women and girls choose to not use them because those communal restrooms often leave them exposed to harassment and attacks by men.
“What does GDP mean for a woman who has to spend over an hour to find a place to defecate?” asked Chaturvedi. “Who is responsible for providing the most basic services to the urban poor?”
The locals of Pune, India, call Chaturvedi the Poop Guy. In 2011, he founded Samagra Sanitation, a company based in Pune that provides sanitation services to the urban poor. The company increases ventilation, availability and overall cleanliness of the existing communal toilets and encourages locals to improve their hygiene routines. It currently services three slums in Pune and provides cleaner toilets to more than 3,300 individuals on a daily basis.
With a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Chaturvedi also developed a toilet that converts human waste into electricity and fertilizer. However, because of a lack in funding and incentives, the project will not reach many people.
Wanting to reach more Indians, Chaturvedi turned to India’s cell phone usage for help by connecting two seemingly unrelated figures. While only 626 million out of 1.2 billion individuals in India have access to working toilets, 800 million Indians have cellphones. He created Poop Rewards, a startup that “creates an incentive program using cell phone talk minutes and other prizes to convince Indians that don’t have easy access to toilets to use designated public toilets in their area.” This system motivates individuals by adding rewards programs along with improved sanitation services.
Chaturvedi explains his motivation for creating better sanitary conditions in India; “There is only one reason: for a woman’s dignity. It goes back to me being a father of a girl child…when I look at my daughter and I think about her future, this is the kind of service I would like her to have.”
Chaturvedi’s efforts are changing sanitary habits among India’s poor. While there is still a long way to go, his ideas are facing the problems caused by extreme poverty and a lack of access to sanitation services head on. Although India’s economy is growing rapidly, millions of its citizens are stuck in poverty. Chaturvedi recognized that although he alone could not change that fact, he could contribute his services and his determination to alleviate the effects of poverty on India’s urban poor.
– Sarah Yan