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Narendra Modi and Bill Gates 'talking toilets': how 'Digital India' and VR is solving India's toilet problem

Narendra Modi and Bill Gates: Two technocrats 'Talking Toilets' and integrating 'Digital India' and 'Virtual Reality' to solve I

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is becoming known as one of the most tech savvy world leaders, with his government's 'Digital India' programme pioneering technology and new ideas towards the goal of being a 'digitally empowered society and knowledge economy'.

Another key mission of his is around improving sanitation and in 2014 he announced the building toilets for everyone in India as part of Swachch Bharat Mission (Clean India Mission). Microsoft founder Bill Gates recently took an interest in the project and integrated the solution into a virtual reality film called ‘Talking Toilets’. The film is viewable using a VR headset, or in a browser as a 360 degree video.

A study by WaterAid claimed that “Around 60% of Indians do not have access to safe and private toilets.” A report titled ‘It’s No Joke – State of the World’s Toilets’ by WaterAid also stated that “If all 774 million people in India waiting for household toilets were made to stand in a line, the queue would stretch from Earth to the moon and beyond.”

The Swachch Bharat Mission has succeeded in rapidly increasing access to toilets, by nearly 50% in the last 30 months, in both rural and urban areas. He also launched a Google toilet locator called 'Swachh Bharat Toilet Locator' app that helps people find toilets.

Bill gates applauded his efforts and, in his blog ‘Gates Notes’, he said: "What I love most about Clean India is that it identified a big problem, got everyone working on it, and is using measurement to show where things need to be done differently. As the old saying goes, What gets measured gets done. If you don’t set ambitious targets and chart your progress, you end up settling for business as usual—and in this case, business as usual would mean poor sanitation keeps killing more than half a million Indians every year."

The Drum spoke to Chadnrakant Lahariya, an Indian public policy expert who believes that the current discourse on improving sanitation in India , and the attention given to the issue by VR content, is a welcome move.

He said: “Construction of toilets is the easiest part of this process and attention has to be given for excreta treatment and disposal. In India, the government needs to invest more on that clearing of septic tanks and improving for sewerage systems. That's where joining this initiative by Bill Gates is crucial as it can bring some finance that is much needed, as well contribute to innovative solutions. These mechanisms are good for accountability as well as sustainability.”

He further added: “Another dimension, which is largely ignored, is that the challenge lies in ensuring sustained use of these toilets, which require both government engagement and community participation. The bigger interventions are needed on behavior change. Studies have shown that in India, members of 20-49% of even those households where a functional toilet is available, people defecate in the open. Behaviour change both in government as well as community is needed. Behaviour change of people would come through engagement of local bodies and communities in bringing some accountability.”

Technology nowadays can be used in an extensive fashion to generate awareness and behavior change. However, the access to these technologies is very limited by the people who defecate in open. Therefore, the technology supported by normal (so called, non-smart phones) has to be explored for generating awareness.

But despite there being a long way to go, awareness generated by Gates' involvement can contribute significantly to this area and is already helping to make Narendra Modi’s dream of installing toilets for all come true.