Think of a loo and sustainability and luxury are probably the last words that come to mind. But that’s precisely the perception some entrepreneurs have set out to change, enabled by smart technology. While 40-year-old Hyderabad-based entrepreneur is giving Indian restrooms a ‘sanitised’ makeover, complete with 24-hours live-tracking of hygiene, another husband-wife duo has focused on solar-powered, vandal-proof units to introduce sound hygiene practices to urban slums.

Since setting up the first smart public toilet at Hi-Tec City in Hyderabad last May, Abhishek Nath and his team have scaled to 18 smart, Internet of Things (IoT)-enabled public toilets in the city, fitted with sensors that alert staff when the facility is stinking or water level is low.

With live hygiene tracking, the 40-year-old’s Hyderabad-based startup Ixora FM is overhauling the image of public toilets from that of reeking spaces which are best avoided to comfortable, green arenas. They are already in talks to take their model to other cities. “Varanasi, Pune, Bengaluru, Chennai and Delhi have shown interest. In Hyderabad alone, we will be setting up 48 more loos in collaboration with the local municipal corporation,” Nath told TOI.

The team is big on sustainability — the toilet blocks are recycled sea containers. The focus now is on reducing water stress, Nath told TOI. “The flush and forget approach to human waste no longer makes sense,” he said. A prototype of the ‘toilet of the future’ unveiled at Hyderabad Design Week in October last year is designed to capture rainfall and filter it to use as drinking water.

The toilet will have a no flush option, instead it will be a composting toilet. While it will look like a conventional toilet, a vacuum pump will transfer the load to a tank where composting will be carried out by micro-organisms (mainly bacterial culture) under controlled aerobic conditions. The new toilet will be set up in collaboration with the government of Telangana and British Council by March 2020. Land for it has been identified at a park near the Durgam Cheruvu lake (Hyderabad). Human waste has nutrients that can be used as fertilisers. In that sense, a public toilet is a goldmine. But can nutrients be extracted from waste and put to good use? Along with a Swedish company, Nath’s team is trying to figure that out.

They are working on a new commode which would be designed in a way to segregate nutrients from waste via chemical extraction or biological treatment. Chakkaravarthi Rajamani, chief technology officer, Ixora, said that in a pilot study, his team was able to extract nitrogen and phosphorus from urine. The idea that toilets could me much more than dirty pits inside rude graffiti-laden walls came to Nath during a road trip to Goa from Hyderabad in 2016. The company runs on public-private partnership mode so the land was provided by Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC). But running expenses — such as staff salaries, utilities — still needed to be met. So cafes (also set up inside recycled sea containers) were set up adjoining the public washrooms. “The washrooms are free to use. The income from the cafe is pumped into the toilet so the system is self-sustainable,” said Nath. The areas are no-plastic and no-tobacco zones.

Another guiding principle for the team was inclusivity. All facilities are fitted with ramps to be disabled-friendly. Then there are ‘Pink Loocafes’ that cater only to women and come with baby feeding zones. For Nath, the biggest challenge in public toilets is to maintain hygiene. That’s why all Loocafes are linked to a live command centre.

Another company is focusing on bringing smarter sanitary technology to urban slums. Faridabad-based Garv toilets — operational across India, Bhutan, Ghana and Nigeria — wanted to move away from brickand-mortar structures to “indestructible” ones made of stainless steel fitted with technology such as wastewater recycling.

Founded in 2014 by husband-wife duo Mayank Midha and Megha Bhatnagar Midha, Garv toilets has helped set up 798 portable toilet blocks in India.

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