Students at Reckitt Benckiser's World Toilet College

Hands-on in the Sewers of India

Changing the lives of India's non-people

Jem Shaw, Sunday, February 20, 2022

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While writing an article for March's ATTIC Magazine, I was reminded of two conferences I worked on in the Netherlands and Costa Rica. They were for Reckitt Benckiser, the company behind familiar names like Dettol and Harpic. RB has origins in India, so it's not surprising that the sub-continent has attracted its attention. My article, like most that I write, is about the importance of looking beyond our individual specialisms to the wider requirements of success for our aims. RB's work on improving sanitation in India took it to unexpected areas, all of which they embraced to outcomes that all should applaud.

Reckitt Benckiser set up its first World Toilet College in Rishikesh in 2016. Initially it set out to provide access to modern sanitation, as well as work topportunities for women by training female masons to build them. This brought to light the deplorable plight of the manual scavengers who kept India's antiquated sewage system flowing. Manual scavenging employs a sub-class of workers who, without safety equipment or access to hygiene, daily enter the sewers to clear blockages. The practice was outlawed in 1993, with strengthened legal prohibition in 2013 but, faced with the choice of illegal clearing or rivers of overflowing waste, the authorities were forced to turn a blind eye to its continued existence.

Reckitt Benckiser allied with on-the-ground NFP organisations to fund education programmes and equipment provision for the scavengers. Almost immediately, two severe obstacles manifested themselves, as RB's director Ravi Bhatnagar explained:

“The majority of the students were already suffering from critical diseases like tuberculosis, so we needed to work with medical professionals to give them the necessary treatment. But, even worse than that, many of the workers didn’t even regard themselves as human; their self-worth was so poor that they didn’t believe they deserved what was being offered to them.”

The organisation responded by providing treatment, followed by psychiatric counselling so that the main intention of the programme could succeed. This is a perfect example of my theme. RB concentrated on the intended end-result, not simply their own area of expertise. As a result, they've now successfully trained many thousands of workers, 90% of whom are now in sustainable jobs for established businesses.

The lesson here is obvious: financial inclusion isn't just about finance. It's one part of a gestalt, the whole of which has to be recognised. Take a look at your business, then look further to find the obstacles outside your immediate focus that could impede your progress. Then look around for the partners who can help break those barriers - I pretty much guarantee that they'll have reciprocal problems that are dead-centre in your specialism. Solve their problems and your own disappear too.



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