Back to homeland, former London banker is now helping build toilets along the Ganga


Shilpika Gautam is right where she belongs. After quitting a lucrative career in London, she is now working with WaterAid to introduce practical toilets in the communities along the river, to not only eliminate open defecation but also to reduce the burden on the river. This is the story of her attempts to kill two very big birds with one stone.

Shilpika with exuberant children of a school in Fatehpur.

Two years ago, in the cold November of London, a farewell party was thrown for an investment banker as she had decided to leave that life behind and return to India. Having grown up in Agra, Shilpika Gautam had been away for almost 10 years, and in those years, her disconnection with India and all its beauty and flaws had slowly dawned on her. Of course, there were yearly visits but ironically, these only heightened her dissatisfaction.

Shilpika wanted to find work that had a purpose, meaning, and a tangible impact. “I wasn’t sure if it was permanent or not but I knew that if something had to change in my life, it would be in India,” she says, revealing the state of mind that compelled a 30-year-old to forego a cushy career.

It’s been a year since her return, and if you ask her now if her stay here is “permanent or not”, she will probably laugh and tell you that it would be hard to make her leave now. From the time she moved back, Shilpika has been in touch with NGO’s, trying to understand the best way in which she can contribute to dire issues plaguing the country. But having been involved in river clean-up drives in Europe, she already knew that water pollution was a window of opportunity beckoning her.

So, in October 2016 she found a way to begin; with a small team, she set out to paddleboard across the entire length of Ganga, which is roughly 2500 km, to assess and document the damage inflicted upon the river. She began this journey with an intention to create awareness about single-use plastic that now infests many parts of the river. But somewhere along the way, realities unfolded and with the strength of the river itself, they swayed her principles and changed her perspective.

Shilpika and team paddling out of Patna on a cold foggy day - no rain, sunshine or fog stopped them from launching their boards on the water.

A river stripped of its holiness

It was in 1986 that the Government launched The Ganga Action Plan with the objective of raising the water quality to acceptable standards. It is disheartening to know that even after 30 years, the objective of this plan remains the same. The plastic explosion, although problematic, is only superficial. The biggest contributing factor to the pollution is the untreated sewage that flows as if molten, searing the life of the river.

According to CPCB, over 85 percent of the river’s pollution is due to the domestic sewage that flows from 50 cities present along the river. How is this possible, you ask? Firstly, the present sewage treatment capacity does not keep up with the sewage generation. Secondly, not all of the treatment facilities are utilised to their capacity as there are no proper underground drainage systems connecting treatment plants with toilets. Moreover, open defecation is still rampant in many communities for whom toilets are an unimaginable luxury.

What then, you would wonder, is the point of building toilets when these factors are not simultaneously addressed? Shilpika, who is now working in association with WaterAid to the address this problem, gives me a solution that was hidden in plain sight.

Working for a #Poop-Free Ganga

“There are many solutions but you have to figure out what will work given the space constraints and what people can afford in that setting,” she explains. Her focus is, therefore, on building toilets that also serve as on-site treatment of waste as it is the most practical and executable of solutions given our limitations. Twin-pit toilets and eco-vapour toilets are what the team will be looking to construct in communities like Fatehpur, Kanpur, Samastipur, and Sahibganj.

Shilpika at WaterAid's project site in Harpur Saidabad in a village which is now open defecation free. Here a villager shows Shilpika the newly constructed toilets.

The former collects wastes in two pits, each filling up while the other dries up. The dried waste can then be subjected to faecal sludge management and successively used as compost. The eco-vapour toilet is an innovation that makes use of a vapour-permeable membrane to speed up the process of dehydration in the twin-pit systems, thereby ensuring that there’s no bacterial growth and groundwater contamination.

However affordable these solutions are, money will always be a limiting factor. To set this in motion as efficiently as possible, Shilpika is currently crowdsourcing funds for this campaign she calls #Poop-Free Ganga. With the help of capacity building projects that WaterAid has put in effect, they wish to include local communities in this endeavour.

Ganga, not the only beneficiary

Not only does this effort address the pollution of the river, it tackles a notorious and humiliating practice that has become a forced way of life for many – open defecation. While on her GangesSUP (stand-up paddle boarding) journey, Shilpika herself had no choice but to yield to this practice. She, however, makes a very important distinction – “I reminded myself that this is something I am subjecting myself out of choice – something I am lucky not to have to deal with normally,” while people in the villages she visited don’t have that luxury we call choice.

Thirty minutes on Google will tell us everything there is to know about the problems of open defecation. But the three months that Shilpika spent on the banks of the river opened her eyes to a situation that mere data cannot encompass. Open defecation, she found, had tributaries of its own, affecting the lives of the people to an astonishing extent.

“Women are the most affected. If they fail to rise before the sun to finish their business, they cannot relive themselves for the rest of the day as there is always the fear of shame, harassment, and assault. To adjust to this, they have completely changed their eating habits, consuming as little water as possible. Because of this, they are also unable to work like the men.”

“Girls drop out of school early because there are no toilets, especially so after they hit puberty.” Add to this the taboo around menstruation, and menstrual hygiene becomes the stuff of fairy tales. It is therefore not only health and hygiene that takes a hit, but also literacy and the fundamental right to live a decent life. With their minds completely occupied with, and everyday decisions revolving around this fundamental act of relieving oneself, the women, Shilpika believes, are losing out on a lot. And we, as a society, are losing out on the potential that these women have to offer.

Shilpika interacting with a community at WaterAid India project area at Shyamaldas Badri of Kanpur.

The power of the people

“It’s amazing what people can do when they’re aware of everything they’ve been deprived of,” she says.

“Twenty-five years ago, Kalvatiji (a local partner of WaterAid) played a key role in the construction of a 55 seat toilet in her community. Inspired by the change it brought in the quality of life in her surroundings, she now works with other communities to enable them to do the same, going as far as to construct customised toilets for the less able and the blind.”

“A local community in Kanpur pooled in Rs 1,000 each and dug a sewer line without the help of the Government,” she says, her voice brimming with admiration.

Shilpika with the ladies of Rakhi Mandi in Kanpur - situated next to the railway tracks, this community is a stellar example of what the resolve of its women and guidance from non profits like WaterAid can achieve w.r.t building toilets.

Although Shipika and WaterAid have been laying significant groundwork in raising awareness among the people with community-led total sanitation (CLTS) projects, Shilpika is plagued by a certain guilt. “The minute you start addressing an issue that’s very painful for people, they start relying on you to provide a solution. It’s very tough when you don’t have the power to change things in your hand.” But she’s still hopeful – “I can’t change something today but what I can do is I can take this finding to the right people and then I can hopefully, over time, create a difference.”

In Shilpika’s efforts, one sees activism that’s not superfluous but practical and an environmental cause that is inclusive of its social context. With these elements, her hopes of creating a difference have every chance of becoming a reality.


Updates from around the world