Mumbai: Tackling India’s water, sanitation and pollution challenges is not every banker’s idea of retirement. But for Naina Lal Kidwai, the former country head of HSBC India--and the first woman in the country’s history to lead a foreign bank--it was the next thing on her list.

For the last ten years, Kidwai, 61, has been involved with projects related to environment and water issues and champions green finance initiatives and a low-carbon economy. While at HSBC, Kidwai became a member of the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) international advisory council inquiry for sustainable finance. There she used the opportunity to set up the UNEP FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry) India advisory council, which in 2016 published a report that explored how India can scale up its use of sustainable finance.

In her role as president of FICCI in 2013, she went on to chair their Sustainability, Energy and Water Council. There she started the Water Mission, which works to improve corporate engagement in water efficiency and stewardship by benchmarking companies and rewarding best practice. She is currently vice-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Water.

In 2015, Kidwai set up the Indian Sanitation Coalition. The inspiration was a story she heard of four NGOs in Bihar, running similar programmes in the same district and each unaware of the other. The platform allows for corporates, NGOs and other stakeholders to meet, document and share best practices.

Sanitation and water remain big issues in India, though its per capita gross domestic product increased 20 times from $81.3 (Rs 1,705) in 1960 to $1,709.4 (Rs 114,530) in 2016. But 1,600 people still die each day from diarrhea. By 2030, 40% of Indians may not have enough water to drink.

Now, the author of ‘30 Women in Power: Their Voices, Their Stories’ has turned her attention to some of India’s most pressing problems. In her latest book, ‘Survive or Sink: An Action Agenda For Sanitation, Water, Pollution and Green Finance’, Kidwai uses case studies gathered over a decade to pose solutions for tackling these challenges. She advocates for district administrations and panchayats to take the lead in rural sanitation, increasing investment in technology and infrastructure to solve waste management issues and supporting entrepreneurship and green jobs as a way of generating sustainable employment and improving the status of those working in this sector.

"I have celebrated and revelled in India's progress and growth. But this cannot be the cost of destroying our air, water, forests and wildlife," Kidwai says in her book.

Kidwai spoke to IndiaSpend ahead of a launch event for her book in Mumbai. Edited excerpts

An April 2017 Swachhta Status report said that 22% of Indians who had a toilet at home did not use it on grounds of “personal preference”. In your book, you suggest involvement of faith-based organisations and local community leaders in the campaign to end open defecation. Do you think this will be more effective than health messaging?

Health messaging is one important factor, but it’s clear that this is not the only way to reach out to people. I love to give the example of an officer in Haryana who had been working extremely hard to have her district declared as ODF (open defecation-free). But the last 10 villages were holding out for a variety of reasons. She struck on a simple, but effective solution. On meeting with the elders of these non-compliant villages, she approached the topic from the point of view of the state’s sex ratio problem (which is as low as 70-100 in some places). She asked them: ‘Do you think that with women in short supply, brides will opt to come to your villages rather than the ones that have toilets? The ones that are ODF and where life is a lot more comfortable for them?’

It was that which brought about the necessary change, since she correctly identified the one thing that really mattered to these communities. So it really depends on each particular situation in terms of figuring out what will work best.

Of course, you certainly want people to understand the health message, of how to not get sick and stay healthy. Corporate volunteering programmes have actually been a really effective way of spreading this message.

Many of us, like me, believe we need a ‘Swacchata Andolan’--a clean revolution--and for this you need a lot of resources. Using trained help--for instance, factory workers who are suitably empowered and trained to go out into local villages--can galvanise community action.

Hindustan Unilever has been running a programme like this. Employees are often conducting public sessions, taking centre-stage and honing their leadership qualities.

Diarrhoea remains among the leading causes of death in India among children between ages five and 17. The same five states (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Jharkhand) still have the lowest levels of households with toilets, showing an increase of just 2% between 2005-06 and 2015-16. What are the biggest hurdles preventing significant improvement in these areas?

India is vast and state-level engagement at every level is critical. We have ODF states but we also have states that are laggards. This could be because state administration has not begun working on this soon enough, or they started from a particularly low base. These states are the ones with the biggest challenges, according to the Sustainable Development Goals. If India does not reach the 2019 goal set by the government for the whole country to be ODF, it will be because of these states; the others are well on track.

What in particular needs to be done then? More resources, more attention?

All. Number one is provision of the actual toilet. Without it, you can preach till the cows come home but you have to actually give people that option. The second is behaviour change. States like UP are very dense and very poor, so reaching out to people and getting that conversion (from open defecation to using a toilet) to happen is critical. At the end of day, and at the core of it, there is often a whole caste system embedded in the issue.

In Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, the pandit is a well-respected man in the village, who believes it’s not civilised, against his culture and a defiling act to have a toilet anywhere in his home. The struggle experienced by his son and daughter-in-law to change his views embodies the resistance that we often see. These are very deep issues that need tackling, and it’s not easy.

It’s also less of a religious issue, but more about caste. We’ve seen some progressive religious leaders who have an influential voice creating change. For example, at the Kumbh Mela (a Hindu pilgrimage festival in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh), priests and religious leaders sat down to their daily meal and asked for the toilet cleaners to sit with them. This was a significant statement that can change outlooks and behaviour. We need more of this.

As of May 2018, the Swachh Bharat Mission, with just over a year left to its target of eradicating open defecation, has achieved 83% rural sanitation coverage. How confident are you that this will improve health and sanitation levels across the population, and what more needs to be done beyond looking at the ODF status?

I have no doubt that it will help. I always use the example of a jumbo jet when talking about the prevalence of diarrhea in India. When a Malaysian airlines jet went down and 200 people were killed, it made front-page news--whereas in India the equivalent of eight jets go down every day and of course it is not news. It is proven that diarrhea is caused by bad water and poor sanitation and that the two are interlinked. Solving sanitation will at least help keep water bodies clean and the health of individuals has got to improve because of that, so I am sure we will see diarrhea deaths go down.

Remember that diarrhea also leads to stunting. In India, 40% of children are stunted (these might be old statistics, I’m confident newer statistics may be better), and don’t see full physical development. Of that, 15% don’t see full brain development. We’ve got to solve sanitation in order to solve diarrhea and water-related diseases, which are so fundamental to good health.

But doesn’t the campaign need to look beyond the ODF status?

At the India Sanitation Coalition and along with government, we are now focusing on what we call ‘ODF plus’--which is looking at the treatment side of the equation too. Our mission is to ‘build, use, maintain, treat’, and it is the treatment part that needs attention. The other parts are all seeing good progress.

In rural areas, we have the gold standard twin-pit system for toilets. The twin-pit means when one fills up, you start the second pit and the first pit becomes pathogen-free over a year or two years. This waste can be used as fertiliser since it does not require much more treatment.

The story in urban areas is far different because of the whole area of septic management where sewage is barely treated. For instance, in Delhi, only 50% of sewage is treated--that means 50% of faeces and sludge finds its way into drains and water bodies and it is extremely hazardous. Treatment solutions do not rest solely on western models (which are focused on big sewage plants and is the model that India is currently following). This has clearly failed us--we are seeing huge population growth and sewage plants are unable to keep up with demand. Large treatment plants also take 8-10 years to build.

Indonesia, the Philippines and even Long Island in New York have implemented a solution which India must follow. For 1/15th of the cost and a one-year set up period, you can establish smaller, more efficient plants. In fact, these systems can be implemented for just Rs 800 per capita (costing Rs 8 crore for a city of 100,000 people). This is not a huge outlay and the running costs are very low. But we lack the entrepreneurs and business that will set up these small FSTPs (faecal sludge treatment plants). Training around these sorts of issues also needs to pick up. We need thousands of these plants.

Almost 96% schools have toilets but 28% are dysfunctional. How can we tackle issues around maintenance and hygiene which will further encourage these facilities to be used?

The government shifting focus from simply constructing toilets and pushing the importance of villages acquiring ODF status is really helping with the maintenance and hygiene issue. You’re not going to be ODF if you’re not using toilets, so you need to keep toilets in use and well-maintained. When you begin to target the use of toilets, de facto maintenance improves.

But it’s an area which continues to need focus. In urban India, the need for functioning and well-maintained toilets is huge because models for community toilets are not always working as they should. There are great examples of the model working well in the slums of Dharavi. Here, an NGO came together with the municipality and other groups to help organise communities into running the service. They created ‘mahila samitis’--women’s groups--who manage the operation. The toilet is a pay-per-use model at a very nominal cost, but the income is really helping the women running it. The accountability factor here is important: Since people are paying for the service, they will ensure the management keeps it clean.

So in rural India, it’s a case of tackling the use of toilets, but in urban areas it’s a challenge of providing enough toilets for everyone?

Yes, in the urban environment, in the slums, people barely have room to live let alone build a toilet, so we need to provide community facilities. The Dharavi model where the person that maintains the toilet block is paid and given a home above the toilet works well. Their home is nice, has two rooms and a terrace. They will make sure it is clean since their family is also living there and is exposed.

The women’s groups make the cleaner accountable and keep an eye on things. In the process, these women, the sort of contractors, have an income and some have revenue of up to Rs 1 crore.

India’s urban population will swell by 30% between 2018 and 2030, growing from 460 to 600 million. As you state, already 1 in 6 Indians live in urban slums. How do urban sanitation challenges differ to rural environments? Where do you begin when faced with such space constraints and high population density?

The municipality has to work actively to enable these spaces to change. If they are not going to build these toilets themselves, they have to allow entrepreneurs to provide and run these facilities

Different models are cropping up. Unilever has an interesting project in Ghatkopar. It’s a toilet bank with a laundry and bathing facility, so water flows from the laundry and bathing facility and feeds into the toilets in a good circular system of water use. We need more of these sorts of sponsorship schemes where they eventually become self-sustaining. The idea is that the money that is generated from people paying to use the facility enables it to run by itself.

In urban areas also, the old-style sewer systems need to be supplemented by these mini FSTPs. Since the big treatment plants will take 10 years to come up, we need to allow these small ones to be implemented as well.

What typically happens at the moment is that residential colonies and homes install septic tanks since they have no sewer connection. These tanks need to be cleaned out every once in a while, so sewage tanker operators, who we call honeysuckers, arrive and extract the faeces from the tanks. In a perfect model, they should then take this to a plant for treatment. The treated faeces is actually very rich in minerals and could be used as fertiliser. One of the other by products is wastewater, also known as treated water (not to the level of drinking, although Singapore treats its water to this level), which at a minimum could be used for horticulture, for example. That is the model is we need--where honeysuckers deposit in to treatment plants and throw off usable water.

A quite terrifying set of statistics opens your chapter on India’s increasing water shortages--40% of Indians may not have water to drink by 2030 and the UN estimated 70% of India’s water supply is currently contaminated. You suggest establishing a market and realistic price for treated water as one solution for improving water sustainability. Can you tell us more about how this would work?

There are some municipalities, like Nagpur, where this is working. Here, the power unit sits next to where the wastewater is generated. The treated water then goes directly towards cooling the power plant. Some people are not aware of this, but power plants need water--in fact, in India, 30% of power plants shut down in the summer for lack of water--so this is a good use of wastewater and should be more widespread.

Often, wastewater which can be used in fields is dumped in to the sea. While someone may have treated the water to a level where it has uses, simply because the uses are not sitting nearby, it is dumped. We therefore need to plan things in a way where this wastewater throw-off--water that has value--is actually used somewhere. In the ideal scenario, if I am the one that has treated faecal sludge and generated wastewater, I should be accurately compensated since that water will be used to someone’s benefit and that should help me to cover my cost. We need to create this type of circular economy so that all along the chain, money is made by entrepreneurs and the people providing an output.

In your chapter on green finance, you advocate a banking code to ensure funds reach green investments rather than those that pollute. But with India needing an estimated $2.5 trillion by 2030 to meet its climate goals, how do we incentivise financial institutions to allocate funding to this sector?

Funding can only go to projects that are financeable; we can’t encourage banks to lend to projects that are going to fail just because they’re green.

What we can do is look at models that de-risk. One of the biggest risks is often governments and municipalities themselves because they change regulations. When a company creates its business model based on certain promises made--and they are contractual promises--those contractual prices should not change later, because that does a lot of damage. The reason is that the next group who approach the project are either going to price this risk in to their model or the project won’t happen at all. Both ways, we as citizens suffer--either the plant won’t come up, or it will come up at a higher price to make up for these risks.

The financial system can also come up with credit enhancement tools and instruments that de-risk, like insurance that can provide cover. It is not easy, but very important.

We also need capital markets involvement, which is the ability for municipalities to raise bonds. When that happens, you create a huge body of vested interest made up of the people who apply for these bonds (i.e. individuals and domestic/foreign funds). These players will always demand that the terms of the bond are met even if the government tries to derail things. This is somewhat easier than when it’s one bank that is lending all the money and relying solely on the banking system.

After a 10-year legal battle, the Supreme Court ruled that the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation must give permanent jobs to 2,700 contractors working in sanitation roles, enabling them to access employee benefits such as paid medical leave. But do you think reducing the stigma around working with waste will encourage more private enterprise in this sector?

Absolutely. It’s a stigma issue and it has tended to be an issue of caste as well. We have to rid ourselves of this totally. We should not just look to employees in government to set the example though, but encourage entrepreneurship. I like to use the example of Kampala in Uganda where 10 millionaires were created because private individuals devised their own system of waste collection. They would collect the waste from slums that was deposited in small drums located under the toilet, and for a small fee take this waste to be used as fertiliser for the surrounding fields.

We need to create more of these types of entrepreneurs--people who understand there is money to be made at the end of the value chain.

Only 27% of Indian women are in the labour force–the lowest among BRICS nations, and the country recently slipped 21 places in the World Economic Forum’s global gender gap ranking. You end the book by focusing on how increased involvement of women can enable greater success for sustainable initiatives.

The role of women in the sanitation and hygiene cycle is well known. They are critical for change since they understand it and can drive change for the whole family. But more needs to be done in terms of education, empowerment and in terms of them demanding their rights so they can assume leadership roles. Microfinance for sanitation projects for example is typically given to self-help groups--groups of 7-10 women acting as guarantors for each other--because they have better repayment histories etc. So in every point of the cycle, women’s role is key. And of course now with women as panchayat leaders they have an even greater opportunity to enact change.

(Sanghera, a graduate of King's College London, is an intern with IndiaSpend.).

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