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Spaceship-like toilets could be the key to saving lives in India

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Spaceship-like toilets could be the key to saving lives in India

I am in a slum in Faridabad, India, south of New Delhi, surveying rundown toilets with a man named Mayank Midha. Behind us is a standing pond of sewage. Over to our left are the narrow alleyways and tight living quarters of the slum, the outer walls of the skinny mud-brick buildings painted in cracked purples, yellows, aquamarines and blues. Stray dogs laze around, and children laugh and run down the corridors. The smell leaches from open sewer lines carved into the walkways made of dusty stone pavers. In one doorway, there’s a woman hunched over washing dishes on the floor.

The toilet stalls, roughly the size of portable toilets, are made of concrete, porcelain and rusted metal. I walk down the row to try prying open each one to look inside. After just a year of use, most of these latrines are either brimming with feces, stripped for parts, locked shut or some combination of the three. People in the neighborhood, noticing our curiosity in their broken toilets, tell us they typically defecate in a nearby trash-strewn dirt field instead.

“It’s pretty disgusting. Most of the times you see there’s no lighting, no ventilation, the toilets get vandalized. There’s shit all over, it’s clogged,” Midha, co-founder and CEO of a fledgling smart sanitation startup called Garv Toilets, says about these facilities. He has a boyish face, big, patient eyes and a light goatee and mustache. He adds flatly: “It’s deeply pathetic, it’s miserable.”

India has the unfortunate title of being the open defecation capital of the world. About 344 million people in India don’t have regular access to toilets — that’s roughly one out of every four Indians. It’s also more than the entire population of the US.

Functioning toilets are more than a basic convenience; they’re vital for public health. Every year, more than 126,000 people in India — many of them children — die from diarrheal diseases due to poor sanitation, according to the World Health Organization. Fresh excrement is teeming with viruses and bacteria, able to transmit ailments including cholera, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid and polio through flying insects that land on deposits or when feces contaminate water supplies. Poor hygiene practices, like not washing hands, are common in low-income and rural communities, making these areas especially vulnerable to diseases, including the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Women and girls are forced to base their daily routines around this lack of toilets. Women wake up before sunrise to relieve themselves to avoid prying eyes, harassment or rape. When no functional toilets or sanitary pads are available at schools, girls will go home during the day to use a bathroom and skip classes altogether during their periods.

These are huge and interconnected challenges that Midha is confronting. A 37-year-old former software engineer, he has spent the past five years developing what he hopes is a better public toilet. Through his tech startup, he created toilets that are the same size as these rundown facilities but are made of steel to make them more vandalism-proof, easier to clean and able to withstand heavy use without falling apart. His more sophisticated models include real-time sensors to track hand washing, water usage and toilet flushes. That data provides local health officials with valuable hygiene information and ensures the facilities are working.

Four boys walk past one of the decrepit community toilets in the slums of Faridabad, India.

James Martin/CNET

His company, based in a trendy coworking space in Faridabad, not far from the slum, employs just 29 workers. The size of the problem they face is enormous in a country of 1.3 billion, the second most populous nation in the world. Many of his models are also at least 25% more expensive than traditional facilities, so it’s unlikely Midha will be able to build out a lot more toilets quickly. Rather than being daunted by these hurdles, he says he sees them as a huge business opportunity. He can also point to the progress he’s already achieved.

Garv, which means dignity in Hindi, last month celebrated its 1,000th installation, with toilets now in community areas, schools and outside government buildings. About 200,000 people use them daily, including 60,000 school children.

“I’ve seen a lot of change in the past three years on the ground,” Midha says at his office following the visit to the slum. He says many more people have access to toilets that never did before. Mentioning one of his company’s installations, he added: “Those toilets are functional, people are using it, only because of the fact that the local government body, they’re more motivated towards cleaning, towards maintaining those toilets.”

“We don’t use the public toilet at all as they are far away and very dirty,” says Maya, a 16-year-old girl living in a tent camp.

James Martin/CNET

His work also doesn’t stand alone. The Indian government has spent tens of billions of dollars to promote better sanitation under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat, or Clean India, mission. The seven-year effort — which has constructed over 100 million toilets and resulted in a substantial drop in open defecation — is such a big deal that India printed the Swachh Bharat logo on its currency. Billboards about the mission are plastered all over the country, and the campaign inspired a movie called Toilet: A Love Story. The program has sparked new innovations in sanitation, including a Google Maps project to list over 57,000 public toilets across India.

Despite those efforts, many of the people we talk with around the slum are incredibly frustrated, saying the government has been ignoring their requests for clean, usable toilets for years. As I can see in the slum, having broken and dirty toilets is worse than not having them.

“Of course, I want a cleaner bathroom,” a 16-year-old girl named Maya, who lives in a nomadic tent encampment up the road from the slum, tells my translator in Hindi. Wearing a flowing bright pink scarf with a checkered and red salwar kameez, she’s busy fashioning a beaded necklace while sitting under a blue-tarp tent. “We don’t use the public toilet at all as they are far away and very dirty. My dadaji [grandfather] also uses the open field. For our bath too, we do so by tying a cloth around and using a bucket of water in the open field.”

I went to New Delhi back in February, just weeks before the coronavirus lockdowns, to learn firsthand about this push to stamp out open defecation in India. Months later, this work of saving lives with toilets is still just beginning. “There is stark change happening now,” Midha says.

Welcome to the Spaceship Toilet

There’s a pale peach-colored building on the grounds of Pragati Maidan, a nearly 150-acre convention center in the heart of New Delhi. The exterior walls, patched up with bare concrete, look like Jackson Pollock stopped by and splattered light brown paint all over the outside. But this unimpressive shell belies what’s tucked inside: the gleaming crown jewel of Garv Toilets’ small bathroom empire.

Neha Goel, a 37-year-old senior project manager at Garv, greets me at the front of two previously defunct public restrooms that Garv retrofitted. We walk inside and it feels like the interior of a spaceship.

“Anybody that is using the toilet gets a neat and clean toilet,” Goel, who effortlessly rattles off an array of toilet stats, says while showing off the futuristic women’s bathroom.

One of Garv Toilets’ automated stainless steel restrooms at the Pragati Maidan convention center in New Delhi, India.

James Martin/CNET

The walls are shiny stainless steel, with all-metal stalls, toilets, urinals, sinks and faucets. The imposing metal outer doors would look right at home in a bank vault. Strips of fake green grass along the walls break up the industrial aesthetic.

Some of the features are common in office bathrooms, like autoflush toilets and automatic sink faucets. But other elements are more advanced than what you’d see in any American public facility, such as sensors attached to SIM cards in each stall and faucet that feed real-time data on water usage, flushes and maintenance needs into Garv’s dashboard.

“While sitting in the office, you can get a lot of data,” Goel says. “For example, you can get to know how many people use the toilet, how many times it got flushed, how many people actually wash their hands and if there is any malfunction, for example if the toilet gets blocked or if we run out of the water.”

Midha later tells me all that data helps Garv make sure its toilets are being maintained properly and any malfunctions are quickly fixed. Plus, the information offers valuable insights for Garv’s public outreach work.

A handful of the features built into Garv’s smart toilets.

Rob Rodriguez/CNET

“It helps us build a strong connection with the community,” Midha says. “If we are doing community mobilization activities, we know what is the real problem of the community. If it is hand-washing, we work with them very specifically towards handwashing.”

Stalls fashioned with squat toilets that are level with the floor — not Western sitdown toilets — include an automated flushing and floor cleaning system. Goel demonstrates how this works, opening a stall to show how between uses a sensor along the wall triggers the plumbing system  to fill the metal floor with water that quickly clears away. As she walks inside, ceiling lights click on and the same sensor tells the toilet to automatically flush itself before she steps above it and after she steps away. While the stall door is locked, an “occupied” light on the outside also switches from green to red.

I’m visiting the bathroom just a few days after it opened to the public. It’s still buggy, with the automatic lights turning off too quickly in a handicap stall, the auto-floor cleaning sometimes overflowing and auto-flush urinals failing to trigger. But every time Garv improves its toilets, it gets one step closer to making something that might last for decades, not months, without breaking down.

“Very little manual intervention is required to maintain this facility,” Neha says proudly.

These features don’t come cheap: A single Garv toilet with its metal enclosure can cost between $2,400 and $4,900, about 25% more than comparable traditional models, Midha says. The Pragati Maidan retrofit project was even pricier, at $50,000. (Other companies sell portable toilets made of plastic and other cheaper materials that go for a few hundred dollars.) But, Midha says, businesses make up those upfront fees with lower maintenance costs.

Welding at the Garv Toilets manufacturing facility.

James Martin/CNET

If these toilets perform well, S.R. Sahoo, a general manager with the convention space, says he’d like to add more spaceship toilets to the rest of the sprawling complex.

I take an hour-long drive through New Delhi’s hectic traffic to a small industrial area in Faridabad where Garv builds its high-tech toilets. The manufacturing space is one big, messy room with bare white walls and a muddy floor. On one side is a handful of metal toilet stalls in various stages of construction. Across from them is a cluttered heap of raw materials jammed along the wall: two red metal drums, hundreds of thin scraps of metal, wooden frames and stacks of dusty pipes. Along the back wall, one worker is welding metal pieces and another is using a circular saw to cut metal, with fiery sparks shooting in the air.

Garv’s toilets are customized to include different features. Cheaper models are simpler steel installations, without the fancy sensors built in. Some include solar panels for the lighting, and others that can’t be connected to an existing sewage system employ biodigesters that convert the waste into fertilizer for landscaping.

But all of this tech still requires maintenance to keep the toilets clean and working. Midha says he encourages anyone buying his toilets to put funds aside for maintenance, because his facilities also can fall into disrepair. Midha has been working to get maintenance contracts for toilets he’s built so far to prevent that from happening. Of his 1,000 installations, he said about 680 Garv toilets are regularly maintained by a government or contractor and 422 of them have real-time monitoring.

“I don’t know how the SIM card is going to help unless you have someone in charge cleaning them,” said Kabir Agarwal, national reporter for news website The Wire, based in New Delhi, who has written extensively about Swachh Bharat.

An unlikely inspiration for a toilet

Midha can seem so unassuming that you’d sooner peg him as an actuary than a tech founder and CEO. In the year that we’ve been in touch, he’s often been reserved and poker-faced, almost to the point of being mysterious. When he smiled, it sometimes caught me by surprise.

Yet when he talks about using toilets to help people, his passion begins to burst out of its mild-mannered shell. His eyes brighten and look in the distance toward some undefined, better future. He’s warm-hearted, idealistic and quick to express his frustration about the state of toilets in his country.

His Garv employees seem to have a similar mix of idealism and professionalism, and speak of Midha with admiration. Were it not for Swachh Bharat, this group of young techies may have worked together to build a successful app company or climbed the ladder of major corporations. Instead, they abandoned such aspirations to go into sanitation, a field that’s at best misunderstood and at worst openly disrespected, and take on a problem that’s so big and festered for so long. Their goal is also an unlikely one, reimagining the lowly and ignored toilet into a tech showcase and a thing of beauty.

Garv Toilets’ founder and CEO Mayank Midha at the startup’s offices in Faridabad, India.

James Martin/CNET

But this isn’t a charity. There is plenty of money to be made as billions of dollars are flowing into sanitation projects in India. Midha doesn’t shy away from these facts, saying it’s helping his business grow, adding that he intentionally made Garv for-profit so it would become sustainable and not reliant on grants.

And getting just this far wasn’t easy. This five-year journey was the culmination of two important parts of his life coming together: his father’s business and his education.

When Midha was a boy, his dad started a manufacturing company called SS Engineers that made sheet metal parts for industrial electronics, telecommunications equipment and HVAC systems. During Midha’s first year in college, his dad, who’s health had been failing, died at the age of 49. He jumped in to help the family business while juggling his schoolwork, and his mother, who was a teacher, took over the company.

He graduated in 2005 and took a job as a software engineer for Tata Consultancy Services, the global IT and consulting business, but he left two years later. “I knew it’s something else that I wanted to do,” he said. “I wanted to develop something of my own.”

He entered the Institute of Rural Management Anand’s MBA program, where his work in poor communities turned him onto helping the least fortunate of us. His mother retired from the family business and he took it over, but he admits he failed at it.

Before the business fell apart, he took on telecommunications clients who ordered dustproof, waterproof and vandalism-resistant metal enclosures to house sensitive equipment at cell tower sites. After the project ended, there were still a few of these cabinets sitting around in the company factory.

“That’s where it struck me that probably we can manufacture portable toilets that can be made out of metal,” Midha said.

Restless to try something new after watching his father’s business come apart, Midha saw the Swachh Bharat mission, with its huge budget and public-wellness pitch, as the right opportunity. He started to research the sanitation problem in India and was stunned at the death, disease and hardship it was causing. He decided this was his new calling: building a virtually indestructible public toilet. He brainstormed ideas at the dinner table with Megha, his wife and high school sweetheart, after putting their daughter to bed. Megha, who’s also a software engineer, co-founded Garv and advises Midha with projects while working a full-time corporate job.

Creating just a steel structure was easy for competitors to replicate, so the couple added real-time motion and water flow sensors and other tech features to differentiate their smart toilet. He developed a prototype in 2015 and started pitching his new concept.

The first two and a half years were incredibly difficult. Government officials, used to approving concrete and brick facilities, balked at the idea that Midha’s steel structure was even a toilet. “People ask us if it’s a telephone booth or something,” Midha said.

After piling on debt, Midha won his first notable contract in 2017. The not-for-profit Aga Khan Foundation asked him to build his toilets in government elementary and middle schools in Bihar, one of the poorest states in India. The middle school, which taught about 400 students, had no functional toilets. The Garv toilets, four at each school, are still up and running today.

It’s really good to see the smile on the face of girls when they see functional toilet facilities in their school.

Mayank Midha, Garv Toilets CEO

Midha started to gain recognition for his toilet and he landed more contracts. He had a watershed year in 2018, when he doubled the number of Garv installations to 700 and garnered a Unilever Young Entrepreneur Award in London. New projects now include installations in Ghana and a refugee camp in Turkey, as well as a community toilet installation planned for a Delhi Metro station.

Midha says he wants to reimagine public toilets in India as community spaces, with landscaping, drinking water facilities, laundry services and other activities, as a way to encourage use and inspire community pride in their toilets.

He may be well on his way to that concept, with hundreds of thousands of people already using Garv toilets every day.

Change is coming

Over the next few days in India, I see what having functional toilets can mean for a community.

Goel and Nishant Agarwal, Garv’s chief operating officer, take me to the agricultural town of Khair in the Aligarh district of Uttar Pradesh to visit an installation of Garv toilets that was built two years earlier. The drive is four hours out of New Delhi, and as we get off the highway, the uneven road is surrounded by miles of green wheat fields dotted with trees. Along the way, there are small, low-slung shops selling chips, scarfs and sandals by the road amid fruit cart vendors, motorcyclists and cows hauling carts filled with bricks.

Outside a line of Garv toilets in the rural town of Khair.

James Martin/CNET

The main drag of Khair is hectic with open-air shops, traffic and people walking along the sides of the road. Tucked into an alleyway is a row of toilets, painted pink to signify they are women’s facilities (though plenty of men are using them) and each fashioned with a Garv Toilets sign, the company’s prominent blue “G” logo easily visible for anyone walking by. These toilets, which were purchased and maintained by the town, are among Garv’s less expensive, basic models, so they don’t include real-time sensors. A woman named Guddi Devi is busy cleaning the toilets after each use. She covers her nose and mouth in her scarf as she pours water on the floor and in the toilet and then brushes the floor and nearby wooden steps with a straw broom.

The toilets are well used, thanks in part to Swachh Bharat’s constant promotion of hygiene practices as well as hefty fines for those found going out in the open.

“We can see a lot of change in the rural masses. Earlier, everybody was doing open defecation,” Aatm Prakash Rastogi, a block development officer for the Uttar Pradesh state government, tells me in his nearby office as he’s busy signing papers at his desk. “Now it’s a stigma.”

The next day I visit another New Delhi slum with a large dusty field leading to a small shop and alleyways filled with small homes. At the entrance, an NGO last year built sets of men’s and women’s toilets made of porcelain and with flimsy plastic doors. The toilets are simple, nothing close to the sensors and bright steel of Garv’s fanciest facilities, but they are clean and usable, thanks to available water and a worker taking care of them.

Amy Yonghee Kim/CNET

I walk inside the slum, the stink of open sewage lines greeting me. There, I meet a carpenter named Ramgilal outside his cramped one-room home, which fits a bed and little else. He’s thin and clean shaven and wears a checkered vest over a collared shirt, slacks and thin flip-flops.

He says he’s much happier now that the community toilets are available. “I used to do open defecation, now I use that toilet,” he tells me through a translator.

Another step forward

In the months since I visited Midha, my work and the world’s attention has been focused on the coronavirus. During that time, Midha and I kept in touch over WhatsApp, and we’d talk about his latest projects. We’d also chat about each other’s families and offer words of encouragement, since both our countries have been badly hit by the pandemic.

A lot has changed with his work. Ever the tinkerer, Midha developed new features to address the coronavirus crisis. He added ultraviolet lighting into Garv toilets to help disinfect them between uses. He sent me a video over WhatsApp of how it works. His hair in the clip was longer and he was wearing a mask. He opens the door to a toilet on the noisy manufacturing floor and shows its interior getting bathed in purple light.

The COVID-19 lockdowns have slowed Garv’s installations. He had to institute pay cuts and deferred some hiring during the outbreak-driven economic downturn. But month by month, he has pushed his projects forward.

While I was visiting India, Midha had been shuttling around, pitching his toilets to governments and businesses. One of them was a gas station operator. Months later, after I returned home, that bid came through. The company ordered 30 of his premium unisex smart toilets for $200,000. That’s 30 more steps toward Midha’s vision of a future where toilets are something people don’t simply ignore.

Midha standing by a line of broken down toilets in a Faridabad slum.

James Martin/CNET

When Midha and I would talk, I’d often think about that slum in Faridabad and wonder what’s happened to the people living there during the pandemic and how Midha’s work is now even more vital.

At the end of one of our days together at the slum, as the sun set and the air cooled, I asked Midha what his father would have thought of his business if he was alive to see it. Without hesitating, he said: “I think he must have been extremely proud.”

We talked that day about how it feels for Midha to provide people with such a basic need.

“It’s hard to imagine that a government school that has 1,500 children, a middle school of girls, doesn’t have any toilet facilities,” he said. “It’s really good to see the smile on the face of girls when they see functional toilet facilities in their school. As a part of the business, if we are also making some kind of a social impact, if we are improving lives in some way, it is highly satisfying for us.”

Top illustration by CNET’s Rob Rodriguez.

Originally published Sept. 9.

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