The Rs 100-crore bucket challenge!

The TCS and Bharti mega announcements for building toilets have the potential to snowball into virtuous sanitation tsunamis that could lift GDP levels

Deepak Kumar | September 6, 2014




In a month when global CEOs and celebrities got consumed by the 100-dollar ice-bucket rave, India Inc. seemed to have discovered its homegrown ‘equivalent’ in the form of several '100-crore corporate social responsibility (CSR) project announcements.
In both the cases, a good cause was the trigger.

From Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates to Oprah Winfrey and Lady Gaga—all took the ice-bucket challenge to demonstrate their support for an estimated 20,000 Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) victims in the US alone who suffer from muscle spasticity that causes “rapidly progressive weakness due to muscle atrophy, and difficulty in speaking, swallowing and breathing.” (The most famous of ALS survivors is unarguably the century’s most gifted physicist Stephen Hawking).

Back home in India, celebrity cheer is yet to surround the even nobler act of providing the very basic toilet facility to tens of millions of people.
It comes up as a virtuous coincidence that TCS and Bharti Airtel, leaders in their respective segments, were the first to announce their '100-crore commitments for up to 10,000 toilets each.

Several other biggies, including HUL, ITC, Dabur, Adani and Aditya Birla Group also announced CSR schemes of matching scales, either afresh or as upgrades to their existing schemes. IDBI too announced it would help construct toilets in 300 schools.

On the surface, these announcements are a laudable way of corporates reciprocating to the '100-crore chant in the Union Budget.
A bigger connect is that companies like TCS and Bharti would be uniquely poised to drive not just CSR-blended ICT (information and communications technology) agendas, but also innovatively apply technologies to create new ICT-powered CSR agendas.

Let’s get the full connect
Why do people from rural India migrate to cities? The most visible reason is the lack of good employment opportunities in villages and the nearby townships. However, not much has been talked about the silent perpetrator—the low appreciation for human dignity in India’s villages.
Not convinced if the “human dignity” factor is so important? Well, let us try and relate better: for example, there have been numerous studies pointing out that a good percentage of employees leave their organisations primarily because of bad bosses and lack of empowerment and not because of salaries.

Now, why shouldn’t the same logic apply for outflow of people from villages to urban environments? By a simple application of sensitivity, the toilets (or the lack of those) may strike us as the most critical factor that potentially jeopardises basic human dignity for the average rural commoner.
The harsh reality of the 21st century India is that a vast majority of its population doesn’t have access to toilets.

Toilet density for empowerment
That there can be a strong linkage between the GDP of a country and the empowerment of its masses is an acknowledged fact. It has also been well argued fact that 10 percent increase in teledensity leads to 0.7 increase in GDP.

The impact of sanitation on empowerment of masses, however, at best, has been poorly understood. Nevertheless, a study by Water and Sanitation Program earlier estimated that the total economic impact of inadequate sanitation in India amounts to '2.44 trillion, which would be an equivalent of 2.87 percent of India’s GDP in 2013.

A World Bank paper released in 2013 noted that children who were provided sanitation facilities exhibited superior cognitive skills than those who weren’t. It could be highly relevant for, say a TCS sanitation programme, to study how the 10,000 schools where the company is to provide toilets are faring on the cognition scales vis-à-vis other schools.
Results from such studies could be of strategic value not just for India Inc. but also for the country’s policy makers and planners, given that India’s knowledge workers, especially in the IT and ITeS sectors, contribute significantly to the GDP but face rising competition from other select countries.

Building micro economic zones
What village public telephones (VPTs) failed to achieve, thanks to the mobile revolution in part, the village public toilets (also VPTs) could. Simple measures could help achieve a snowball impact.

For example, if telecom companies applied their '100 crore (CSR money) to build village public toilets close to their base transceiver station (BTS) sites. Even better if they could use waste management solutions to generate some amount of energy and also use the toilet rooftops to generate an additional bit of solar energy, which could contribute to the energy needs of cell sites, cutting down on the telcos’ carbon footprints in the process.

Various government agencies could, of course, also come together and turbocharge the process of allocating land for the construction of VPTs. In fact, it could be a good idea if the common service centers (CSCs), as envisaged under the National eGovernance Program could be built closer to the VPT sites or vice versa. Even better if the village school is also located in the vicinity, as then a larger area of connectable rooftops could be pooled in to create a greater volume of solar energy.

While certain logistics issues would come up (like limitations posed by locations of existing BTSs or CSCs), the greenfield implementation could be the starting points while retrofit roadmaps could be planned for the brownfields.

These efforts could best be coordinated through a government agency, and perhaps the creation of a special purpose vehicle such as a nodal agency could also very well be considered.

A well-coordinated play could thus catapult CSCs into full-blown NeGP delivery centers. In due course, these VPT-driven CSC areas could be further extended to co-locate other key establishments like banks and post offices. Envision village business hubs on the lines of city business districts.

And the IT connect?
IT companies like TCS could have a lot to do, starting with something as simple as creating solutions that measure the CO2 reduction at the cell sites on account of renewable energy usage. Further, they could be IT-enabling any new bank and post office branches that open up in the village business hubs that start taking shape.

And later, when the hubs are better developed, these companies could further contribute to the village economies by way of creating remote development centers, call centers, et al, in hub areas. These hub areas could consequently develop as smart enclosures (like the smart cities), interconnected and centrally managed as part of a wider Digital India project.

The toilet may now begin to appear a more powerful thought than it earlier did. Even more, there is a need for the '100-crore toilet-project announcements to go viral, like the ALS ice bucket act has. The few '100-crore announcements could be the fodder for that attention and trigger more such announcements from other corporate houses. Celebrity focus on such programs could greatly help, and encourage others. Let India Inc.’s own version of the ice-bucket challenge begin!

Kumar is founder analyst at BusinessandMarket.net and is a market researcher and strategic adviser with diverse interests.

This story first appeared in Magazine Vol 05 Issue 15(01-15 Sept 2014)

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