Exploring solutions to India’s sanitation crisis

With a population topping 1.2 billion, India is the world’s most populous democracy and home to a sixth of Earth’s inhabitants. And yet, half the nation lacks access to toilets—a reality that has become a top priority for India’s government. University of Chicago Booth School of Business’ Social Enterprise Initiative and the University of Chicago’s Center in Delhi hosted practitioners, policymakers and academics at the Clean India convening on April 17 to discuss research and ideas to address India’s sanitation crisis.

Among those who participated is Richard H. Thaler , the Charles R. Walgreen Distinguished Service Professor of Behavioral Science and Economics, and author of the acclaimed book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Nudge applies behavioral economics and psychology to improve public policies and services. Thaler’s keynote, which highlighted the use of “nudges” on issues from tax collection efforts in the United Kingdom to organ donation campaigns in Brazil, provided an academic framework for the day’s discussions and emphasized the value of a cross-sector strategy to work on social issues.

“Booth’s multidisciplinary approach and worldwide network of faculty, alumni and students can be useful with issues such as sanitation, which crosses borders and sectors,” said Christina Hachikian, director of the Social Enterprise Initiative at Chicago Booth. Resources like Chicago Booth’s Global Visibility Fund , which provided support for the Clean India convening, help the school grow its worldwide reach and work on global issues. “The Global Visibility Fund gave us the latitude to think strategically about how we could be most useful in this conversation,” Hachikian said. By hosting convenings throughout the year—forums that center on social issues and bring together academics and policymakers—SEI hopes to draw focus and create opportunities for collaboration.

Similarly, as the University’s base for research, teaching and dialogue in India, the Center in Delhi is positioned to facilitate worldwide connections, explained Bharath Visweswariah, executive director of the center. “We’re here to create opportunities to attain broader understanding—through the open exchange of ideas—of issues central to the future of the region,” he said.

Few social issues have received the widespread attention that has focused on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat, or Clean India, campaign. Modi kicked off the initiative in fall 2014, promising 100 million toilets by 2019. But achieving these goals requires not only the provision of toilets, but also policy initiatives aimed at shifting behaviors and the buy-in of public and private sector stakeholders.

The Clean India convening showcased cutting-edge research on behavior change and integrated public and private sector perspectives on challenges and solutions. Anjali Adukia, assistant professor in the Chicago Harris School of Public Policy , gave a presentation on her research into how the provision of basic needs—including access to toilets—can increase participation in schools. Other speakers and attendees included representatives from Indian multinational conglomerate Tata Group, USAID, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, World Bank and nonprofit Toilet Hackers, which partnered with SEI and the Center on the convening.

Key points and next steps discussed include:

  • Attention to behavior change, in particular a focus on habit formation.
  • Agreement on quantifying the success of the campaign. Consider measuring usage of toilets and health outcomes, not merely the number facilities.
  • Implementation of user-centered design when building toilets. Aspects like geographic location and gender of the user must all be considered.
  • Development of a maintenance/ownership strategy. Community and public/private sectors must agree on who is responsible for upkeep of toilets.

Instrumental to the planning of the convening were Chicago Booth alumni in India, including Swati Vasudevan, MBA’00, deputy director, strategy, planning and management at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Luis Miranda, MBA’89, chairman of the board of advisers for the Centre for Civil Society and an adviser to Mumbai-based consulting firm Samhita Social Ventures, which helped develop the agenda for the Clean India convening.

In a recent blog for Forbes , Miranda, who is a member of Chicago Booth’s Global Advisory Board, discussed the aims of the convening: “We are bringing together the government, NGOs, corporate India and academia to see how we can ensure that Swachh Bharat actually delivers what Prime Minster Modi set out to do.”

Anjali Adukia , Center in Delhi , Chicago Booth School of Business , Christina Hachikian , Global , India , Richard Thaler , Social Enterprise Initiative

Panel members at the Clean India convening (from left): Vipin Arora, senior consultant of Tata Consultancy Services; Divyang Waghela, assistant development manager of TATA Trust; Luis Miranda, MBA’89, chairman of the board of advisers for the Centre for Civil Society; Kathryn Stevens, deputy mission director of USAID; Vijay Chadda, CEO of Bharti Foundation; and Nitya Jacob, head of policy at WaterAid India.

Sarah Nolan
Director of International
Office of the Vice President for , University
snolan [a] uchicago (p) edu
(773) 702-8378


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