Smart solutions

Making women’s lives safer in India, one bathroom at a time

Sanchaita Gajapati Raju’s career is stuck in the toilet, which is right where she wants it

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Courtesy Sanchaita Gajapati Raju

Courtesy Sanchaita Gajapati Raju

Growing up in India’s capital of New Delhi, Sanchaita Gajapati Raju says she had a “fantastic, perfect life.” She traveled the world with her father, a filmmaker, and mother, a member of parliament. Later, she went to law school. Today, her career is in the toilet. And that’s a good thing.

Raju is bringing eco-friendly toilets and clean drinking water to people in need in India. Her nonprofit group, Social Awareness Newer Alternatives, or SANA, taps solar power to run water-treatment plants, then sends the waste water to community toilets. “I wanted to do something green and also aspirational,” she says. “People want a better life.”

She could have chosen a life of luxury. But she felt called to do social work from early on, she says. She recalls a trip with her mother, Uma Gajapati Raju, to the remote villages of Andhra Pradesh on India’s southeastern coast. Her mother was volunteering with a hospital on wheels, and Raju went along for the ride. “My schoolteacher told me, ‘You will learn so much more than you would at school,’” she says. And she did. “It touched a chord,” she says. The memories of villagers lingered, and she began to wonder how she could help.

Years later, another defining moment: She traveled with her father to the state of Karnataka in southwest India for a film about agriculture and technology. She often worked with her dad, Ramesh Sharma, on his films, which include The Journalist and the Jihadi, about slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. On the trip to Karnataka, seeing technology in action on the farms, an idea took shape. She began thinking about how technology could solve the problems she had seen in rural villages. One of the most basic problems: no clean drinking water.

“Everything begins with water,” she says. “When you don’t have clean water, girls drop out of school. People get sick and malnourished.” She began visiting villages and “talked and listened to people,” she says. “They were the biggest source of learning. Many didn’t have power and were using diesel generators. I thought, we have abundant sunshine in our country. Why not go solar?”

With no background in technology, she began researching solar power and clean water. “Technology is not rocket science,” she says. “It’s not something the average person can’t deal with.” She learned how solar panels could power water-treatment plants. And she made the leap: In 2011, with some startup money from her parents, she founded SANA. “I was leaving a comfort zone. I had many sleepless nights,” she said. “But I didn’t want to have any regrets. I was ready to take a risk. My parents were very supportive. They always told me, ‘You can do whatever you want.’”

Courtesy Sanchaita Gajapati Raju

Courtesy Sanchaita Gajapati Raju

Raju, now 32, started by reaching out to experts in the field, she says, getting people to donate solar panels and help develop the clean-water technology. But she soon realized she was “creating an incomplete solution,” she says. “We were giving access to water without sanitation. In many villages, there is no sewage network.” She researched toilets, learning about technology that could use the waste water from water-treatment plants for toilets. “It’s very simple,” she says. “I can’t believe it hasn’t been done a zillion times.”

Within two years, she had won a Google Impact Challenge award, receiving a $500,000 grant. She says she is using the money to set up systems in 10 villages in southern India. The projects are sustainable in the long term, she says, because the villagers take care of the systems. There is a small fee for clean water so people don’t waste it. And there is a limit on how much water people can buy, so the wealthy don’t come and “buy all the water,” she says.

The community toilets are for women and children, she says, because they are the most vulnerable people. “I’m not saying men don’t need toilets,” she says with a laugh. “But with limited resources, we are starting with the most vulnerable. And women wouldn’t use the community toilets if men were using them,” she says. “So we are beginning with women.” Solar power lights the toilets at night, she says. Raju will discuss her work at the Women in the World Summit in New York City later this month.

She hopes the project will eventually topple social barriers. To that end, she is installing the water systems and toilets in the lowest-caste areas of town, so people from other areas have to walk there. “When you talk to different kinds of people, that’s when barriers break,” she says. “I’m not saying it’s always smooth sailing. But it’s a start.”

Sanchaita Gajapati Raju will be appearing at the Women in the World Summit in New York City on April 23. To purchase tickets to the event, click here.

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