Swapnil Chaturvedi

Ashoka Fellow
fellow-26115-Headshot - Swapnil headshot.jpg
Fellow depuis 2014
This description of Swapnil Chaturvedi's work was prepared when Swapnil Chaturvedi was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.


Swapnil is changing the widespread practice of open defecation in urban slums, by strategically influencing key emotional and rational decision-making. Through the principles of human-centered design, he is improving the condition of community toilets to create “compelling experiences” for its customers while also building a sustainable model in collaboration with the municipality, FMCGs and local businesses.

L'idée nouvelle

Swapnil recognizes that improving sanitation for low-income urban communities in India is as much about better infrastructure as it is about user engagement and the creation of positive habits. With this insight, he is focused on creating compelling experiences that satisfy user needs and promote key behaviour to make sanitation aspirational for the urban poor.

Swapnil employs a range of creative tactics that influence both: the environment and the emotional and rational side of communities. Applying a human -centric design approach, Swapnil works with the community to make changes to existing public toilets (improving ventilation, introducing child friendly bowls etc.) that instill ownership and create better user experiences. Simultaneously, Swapnil understands the needs and wants of communities to introduce a dynamic system of rewards and feedback that are aimed at bringing about a sustainable shift in behaviour. For instance, he appeals to the emotional and competitive side of communities by providing instant gratification through points for connecting new users to the system, celebrating success and providing feedback on their performance vis-a-vis their neighbours. He also appeals to the rational side of communities by allowing families to redeem their points for discounts on hygiene, sanitary and nutritional food products. Through a combination of game mechanics and data analytics (including data that communicates money lost due to lack of hygiene) he creates a range of intrinsic and extrinsic stimulators that engage the community and positively influence their behaviour towards sanitation options.

Swapnil’s intervention in Pune slum blocks has already led to a 600 percent increase in payment for toilet usage, and the average number of daily users is over 2500, thus reducing the impact of open defecation and related diseases. A recent MOU with the Pune Municipality Corporation will now give Swapnil access to 50 toilet blocks across the city.

Le problème

An estimated 600 million Indians defecate in the open. Lack of adequate sanitation hits the urban poor the hardest, as they lose approximately 10 per cent of their income on health-related impact of open defecation. Also major cause behind malnutrition amongst children below 5, the lack of proper urban sanitation is chipping away at India’s human capital.

The decision to defecate in the open is not dictated by lack of economic resources and infrastructure alone. Most urban slum dwellers are rural migrants and not habituated towards using a community toilet. As Swapnil’s extensive mapping of user attitudes depicts, common motivations to use an indoor-toilet, like privacy and hygiene are not closely attached to their idea of sanitation. As statistics have shown, low-income groups would rather spend their limited resources on commodities like mobile phones and Direct-to-Home TVs than paying for the maintenance and repair of toilets, indicating their aspirational priorities.

The behavioral and aspirational preferences of these communities have a direct impact on how the economics of these community-toilets work. However, most municipalities and CSO’s have focused on creating infrastructure (community toilets etc) and have failed to focus on building aspirations to use toilets. This is reflected in the failure of the municipality’s to get communities to pay for toilet use and take ownership over their sanitation options. Furthermore, by making certain toilet blocks free to use, the municipal bodies have triggered a lack of stake-holdership of users over these community blocks and as a result, they are poorly-maintained and unusable.

Even though public-private partnerships like Sulabh’s system have addressed the issue of sustainability in these community toilets, there is little economic incentive to keep these toilets operational in slum areas. For instance, Sulabh has to cross-subsidize its operations in slum toilets from the high foot-fall they receive in city centres. Other private players too lose interest in building and maintaining these toilets for the urban poor as the cost of maintenance far exceeds the traffic these toilet blocks see.

Additionally, most community toilet blocks (either public or private) are not designed to suit the needs for their low-income customers, thus creating a lack of association and familiarity for the user. For instance, most of these blocks are uniform, without proper ventilation and lighting systems. Built without keeping the needs of the community in mind, these soon become the community’s least preferred option.

La stratégie

Swapnil’s strategies are designed to sustainably change the sanitary habits of low-income customers, create a sense of ownership over their toilets and instill an understanding of why paying for sanitation is a path to economic and social upliftment. Swapnil tweaks the local environment and leverages the key rational and emotional motivations of users to make using toilets a habit and eventually a ritual.

Swapnil begins by liaising with the municipality to obtain a contract to renovate and maintain these toilet blocks. He employs a human-centered, bottom up design approach in renovating these toilets. Working with the community to understand their needs and wants, Swapnil co-designs solutions that improve user experience. For instance, by designing smaller toilet bowls for children, he addresses their fear of falling in and thus discourages their habit of defecating outside the cubicle or in the open fields. Such low-cost, innovative techniques that improve the environment help in improving instilling a sense of ownership towards the toilet block. Moreover, these design adjustments, by boosting a user’s engagement with the toilet, discourage vandalism, theft and lessen the need for constant repairs in these blocks, thus reducing the municipality’s maintenance costs significantly.

However, Swapnil is cognizant of the fact that simply improving infrastructure will not result in bringing about behavior change. To bring lasting behavior change, he has deconstructed their decision-making process to understand key motivations that can influence decision-making in the short term and long term - instant gratification, rewards, peer-pressure, competition and social norming.

Swapnil uses this insight to put in place systems that nudge decision making to make better sanitation and hygiene practices aspirational. For instance, he has created a system of “Loo-Rewards” that is aimed at influencing the rational dimension of decision-making. Samagra (the organization founded by Swapnil) stations an operator kiosk outside the toilet block. Through this, Samagra collects data on number of users, timings, habits as well as enroll them in the rewards-system. By linking these redeemable reward coupons to their use of the toilet and informing them on money saved on the product, users gain instant gratification. Focused on improving the health and hygiene of users, these rewards usually entail discounts on washing and sanitation products, water purification systems or fortified, nutritional snacks sold by local producers. The rewards are also customized to the particular needs of particular sub-groups. For instance, adolescent girls can redeem points for sanitary napkins.

Swapnil also uses positive feedback like publicly sharing stories of users who have benefitted from their toilet scheme in their communication materials to the community and encourages competition between user families through an audio system to announce the “offers” that habituated users receive over others. By using these tools, he engages users positively with improved sanitary behavior. The system has evolved further to include a “savings plan” for customers, which encourages the habit of saving within community and helps pay for the subsequent month’s toilet plan.

Swapnil also influences the environment around the toilet block through positive public service messaging and awareness campaigns on health and hygiene to create a “social norm” around toilet use. Children, usually early adopters of the system, are engaged though poster-making competitions and rewarded on bringing more users to the toilet. Along with a 600 percent increase in the number of people paying for toilet use, Samagra has also engaged 102 first-time users of the toilet. These facilities now see a daily traffic of 2,500 users and benefit 560 families across three wards in Pune.

The toilet thus acts as a community connector and becomes a tool of both material benefit and psychological behavior change for the customers by re-affirming their sense of identity and autonomy, thus sustainably influencing them to choose and pay for better sanitation options than before.

By monetizing this shift in behavior, Swapnil is able to meet his operational costs through user fees and aims to make these toilets completely self-sufficient in the next year. A recent MOU signed with the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) will now give Samagra access to renovate 50 toilets across 15 slums in Pune. Through this strategic partnership, Samagra aims to influence the design of new toilets that the PMC invests in. Swapnil is simultaneously building partnerships with local businesses to diversify the set of rewards offered which also ensures strong market linkages for small producers with these low-income consumers. With the aim to engage three more sanitation partners and adding 20 businesses to his rewards portfolio in the next 12 months, Swapnil’s target is to reach out to over 70,000 urban users.

The plug-and-play nature of this model, combined with its data-centric insights make it a competitive option that can be applied across various public sanitation systems in the developing world. Based on targeting and changing aspirations of low-income customers, this system can be used to improve their access to other amenities like clean drinking water, affordable housing and health insurance in due time.

La personne

Swapnil hails from a humble and conservative family near Raipur in Chattisgarh. He faced familial conflict early in his life as his choice of a life partner upset his parents and led them to cut off all economic resources. Swapnil and his wife worked their way through college by tutoring school children in math and science and eventually opened their own tutoring centre. Keen to gain exposure of the outside world, the couple decided to pursue their post-graduate studies in the US, and as Teaching Assistants supported themselves through graduate school.

Swapnil returned from a four year-stint in the United States to find that though India’s GDP had had witnessed unprecedented growth, economic and social progress had only been the privilege of a few. Without access to basic amenities like clean water, sanitation, housing and health insurance, a majority of Indians still lived in slum areas that co-existed with high rises, thus compounding the sense of economic and social inequality for its inhabitants.

Moved by the stark lack of progress and opportunity for these people, Swapnil quit his job as a software engineer in the US and began to pursue avenues that would help him direct his energy towards helping the poor. He was admitted to Northwestern University where he took a Sustainable Urban Design course that exposed him to the vast challenge of urban sanitation in the developing world. After a period of extensive research in design and business models, Swapnil returned to India to implement his low-cost sanitation solution, only to find that in practice, it wasn’t a sustainable model. Swapnil’s initial interventions in the space were centered around energy-generation (biodigesters) and solid waste management. However, a combination of laws against manual scavenging, stigma against human-waste treatment in particular zones, a lack of community participation and unwilling local bodies led to the failure of his first start-up “Poop-to-power” and a complete dissolution of the company. Undeterred, Swapnil tried again through mobile toilets that generated electricity and fertilizers, but that too proved an economically unsustainable model to run.

Through this process of iteration, Swapnil also took the bold decision to turn his back on the US, a green card and a mortgage to return to India and pursue his mission. He faced both economic and social challenges in choosing to work in a “dirty” field. However determined that better sanitation was the key to healthy and dignified living for the urban poor, Swapnil continued to pilot sanitation projects till he honed in on behavior change as his design principle and started Samagra Sandas in 2010 in Pune.