In Swades, Shah Rukh Khan played a NASA engineer who gave up his highly coveted job to come back to his roots in India and help develop a village.
Anoop Jain, a graduate of Northwestern University has a similar story. A graduate of the class of 2009 with a degree in Environmental Engineering, Jain decided to return to India to work for communities here.
Jain, now recognised by Forbes as as one of its '30 under 30' social entrepreneurs, started off by helping raise $30,000 to build a community soup kitchen for Tibetan refugees in northern India.
The turning point came when Jain met Chandan Kumar, his future collaborator who helped him start the SHRI (Sanitation and Health Rights in India), an NGO that builds public toilets. "After working in McLeod Ganj, I was already working in Bihar, when I met Chandan Kumar who made me realise how important it was to build public toilets in India," Jain recalls.
The story goes that the two collaborated to design a mid-day meal plan for children in Bihar and that's when they realised that the reason the kids kept falling ill wasn't poor quality food — rather they had caught infections because of open defecation. There were no public toilets.
Over 600 million Indians defecate in the open and 100 million lack access to safe drinking water, resulting in otherwise preventable diseases and mortality. Jain started SHRI, which currently operates in Bihar, where 70 percent of the 104 million residents lack access to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services. SHRI doesn't only build toilets though, it builds sustainable toilets. These toilets use the collected methane gas to power a water supply plant that then provides subsidised drinking water to the village. Here's the model:
The NGO started off by concentrating its efforts in the Supaul Sdistrict, where 1.8 million of the 2.2 million residents do not have toilets or potable water. SHRI operates two community sanitation facilities in Supaul, serving over 1,600 daily toilet users and selling over 20,000 litres of potable water weekly.
This success has led to funding, enabling increased access to toilets and water for 10,000 more people in 2016. Additional proof of concept will demonstrate that SHRI’s model will end open defecation while improving access to potable water. SHRI aims to attract $20 million by 2021 to improve WASH outcomes for more than 1 million Indians.
Jain's initiative has got him a lot of funding. In 2012, they were awarded $30,000 with the help of a Dell Social Innovation Challenge and the Waislitz Global Citizen Award in 2014. The US$100,000 award money helped fund SHRI and build the five plants that SHRI operates from.
Does Jain, with his American accent, feel like an outsider in Bihar? He says he considered himself a person of a colour in the US and in Canada. But he says, here in rural Bihar, he attracts the same attention as a white man would — he dresses and talks like one.
But he does realise he is an outsider in the situation. Like he says in his TED talk, "So, I have this theory that there are two kinds of people in this world. There's the haves and the have-nots. And the reason problems in this world exist is because the haves don’t necessarily understand the have-nots. And so, what eventually happens, is that when the haves try to help the have-nots, they’re rendered useless due to their lack of understanding, when trying to effect any kind of substantive change. And this is what then ultimately lets the problems persist. So, what does this mean in the context of pooping? Well, you all just admitted that you all poop, which is great. So, you and seven other billion people poop. But there is one key difference, and that is everyone in this room has a place to poop. And, like I said earlier, there’s 2.5 billion people who don’t. So that is the difference."
Jain, 30, is now a doctoral student in public health at UC Berkeley. Are Jain and SHRI hoping to get government funding?
Jain remains optimistic about the possibility, especially since their work is congruent with the current government's Clean India initiative. "We are going to meet a beauraucrat in Bihar next week to discuss funding," he shares.
While Clean India also aims to end open defecation by 2 October 2019 and install 75 million toilets across the country (which Bill Gates is very optimistic about, by the looks of this blogpost), and initiatives like Global Citizen also pitch in yearly concerts featuring Coldplay to put an end to open defecation, Jain seems to be the foot soldier of the future who is propelling the cause and doing something about it. Jain aims to open two more facilities to convert biodegradable human waste into a renewable energy sources.
(All images courtesy Anoop Jain and SHRI)