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R Gopalakrishnan: 'Neat and clean' innovation

Business Standard, 17 April 2014


The idea of sanitation has raised many challenges down the years


Often managers view innovation through the narrow lens of creativity, product development and technology. Successful innovation is far more holistic and has additional dimensions of experimentation, business model, sociology and execution.


According to, Steve Jobs expressed the view, "It is a disease to think that a really great idea is 90 per cent of the work." Jobs argued that an idea is quite valueless until it converts into a product manifestation through craftsmanship, which is what stands between a great idea and a great product. An idea turns, twists, mutates and changes all the time as it is designed into a product. In this process of innovation, novelty and consumer delight are added. The final product may bear little resemblance to the original idea.


Consider innovation in the context of the mundane, unspeakable subject of sanitation. The idea of sanitation has provided more and more challenges, both technical and sociological, with every new product form.


The Indus Valley civilisation existed 30 centuries before Christ and was prominent in hydraulic engineering. Those people had sanitation devices that were the first of their kind. Individual homes sported the earliest known system of flush toilets that were connected to a common sewerage system. The sewers, 1.5 metres deep and one metre wide, were made from bricks and joined together seamlessly. It is amazing that our society with this pioneering heritage of sanitation is today the world's largest open defecator.


The Housesteads Fort on the Hadrian Wall attests to latrines as the best preserved feature of sanitation in the Roman civilisation, which is noted for innovations in waste management. Waste flushed from latrines flowed via a central channel into a main sewage system, and onto a river.


In 1186, in the palace of the Roman Emperor in Erfurt, Germany, the fumes from the palace cesspools of sanitary waste caused the floorboards to gradually rot. One day the floors collapsed and hundreds of the emperor's guests fell into the cesspool and drowned in human excrement.


Around the 16th century, early forms of the water closet started to appear. British nobleman John Harrington built what he called a "privy of perfection" for Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth I in 1596. This device washed away the waste but lacked the means to remove the fumes. Around 1920, Mahatma Gandhi had stated that "sanitation is more important than independence."


In 1999, when British Medical Journal polled experts about what they considered the greatest medical advance since 1840, the majority cited public sanitation, ahead of antibiotics and anaesthesia. After so many centuries, the idea of sanitation is alive and kicking, vibrant and attracting the best minds of the world to create more innovative product manifestations of an idea for human convenience.


The innovation challenge seems to have increased in intensity despite centuries of work. Broadly, there are three kinds of sanitation facilities. The upper end of the market is served by flush toilets. The middle end of the market is served by pit latrines. The bottom end means open defecation. Of the seven billion people on the planet, about one billion defecate in the open. Another 1.5 billion people have no access to flushed toilets. That makes 2.5 billion people completely vulnerable to the ill effects of a poor sanitation system.


The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has challenged scientists to reinvent the toilet. Under this programme, an Indian company, Eram, has designed an eToilet that can be self-sustaining: it can generate its own energy and water from the waste and further, eToilets can be interconnected through an electronic network. One Washington-based company has designed a power plant that could feed off the waste from a small city. The University of West England has showcased a urine-powered fuel cell to charge cell phones overnight. Another team from the University of Colorado has devised a system of concentrating solar power and generating enough heat to kill pathogens in the waste and produce "biochar" as a cooking fuel or fertiliser. One fears that such solutions, while being innovative and capable of winning prizes, will be irrelevant to the billions who suffer the sanitation problem.


Bindeshwar Pathak is famous for founding Sulabh in 1970. A two-pit flush toilet, a pay-for-use system and hygienic on-site waste disposal are some of its features. The UN Centre for Human Settlements has lauded this great innovation. While this technology is hugely successful, it has not yet dramatically enough reduced the incidence of open defecation in the country.


The problem is not just one of technology, but also involves social attitudes. When problems like open defecation persist for long, human beings learn to ignore it. Village leaders should play an important part in convincing people to be hygienic, and follow good sanitation practices. There has even been a suggestion that families who do not use toilet facilities, should not be eligible for government grants. There are several good organisations, particularly in rural areas, called the rural sanitary marts. They provide good service to bring about awareness. Some of them even construct toilets. They need to be strengthened.


Corporations are trying to address the social problem. Sushanta Sen of the Confederation of Indian Industry authored the report "Corporate Involvement in Sanitation" in 2013 and managed to assemble over 60 companies into a first effort last year. With corporate social responsibility becoming mandatory, much more can be expected of this marvellous initiative. Neighbouring Bangladesh undertook a massive public programme around 2000, involving NGOs, entrepreneurs and a National Sanitation Strategy. The results may qualify as a revolution; it has shifted peoples' attitudes to open defecation. In the Demographic Health Survey done recently, it was found that only five per cent of Bangladeshis defecated in the open, whereas in India, the corresponding number is 57 per cent. Surely, India can do better!