Why a journalist quit his job to turn old buses into public toilets

In 2018, when Diptendu Roy walked into a room full of aspiring entrepreneurs to present his business idea, there were laughs and chuckles all around. When he returned to his seat, the well-meaning gentleman to his right asked him why he was so determined to throw his wife’s money down the drain.

This thought stayed with Diptendu for a long time. After all, he had quit his high-paying job to do something unconventional and relied entirely on his wife to support him at the time.

Once a journalist, he was now pursuing a project he was deeply passionate about: making clean public toilets accessible, especially to women traveling along Indian highways.

Dipendent Roy

Diptendu says that while he knew it wasn’t the first startup to think of this idea, personal experiences served as motivation and laid the groundwork for Eloo.

This pilot project is the result of a memorandum of understanding between the Bolpur Mahila Mahasangha Self-Help Group (SHG) and the Raipur-based startup.

‘How can we make travel comfortable for women?’

A disused bus being considered to be turned into a public toilet.

Talk to The best India, Diptendu says: “I was traveling with my wife Sunita Chakraborty on the highway in southern Chhattisgarh. For miles, there were no toilets available. I was still able to stop at the side of the road and go behind the trees, but Sunita faced immense difficulties.

According to John Hopkins Medicine, holding urine too long can lead to bladder incoherence. For many women on a road trip, the fun element is taken away due to a lack of good hygienic toilets along the way.

Neha Sharma, a resident of Gurgaon, says, “Although I love hiking and travelling, I have now started to think twice before going on a road trip. The lack of quality infrastructure is a huge deterrent. There have been several instances where I ended up with a bad urinary tract infection (UTI) that required me to take antibiotics.

Many women feel this pinch when traveling. Some choose not to drink water, and some choose to withhold their urine until they reach their destination, causing more harm than you might think.

“Creating a comfortable travel experience for women along highways was my main goal in creating this startup,” says Diptendu. In 2018, the idea was presented to the Chhattisgarh government and he enrolled in a scholarship program facilitated by the state government.

Through several conversations he had with dhaba owners along the highway, he discovered that the women refrained from drinking water throughout their journey so that they did not have need to use the toilet until they reach their destination. “These conversations were very eye-opening and left me feeling helpless about the situation the women were in,” he says.

How does Eloo work?

A converted disused bus

Using old disused buses, the startup launched its first prototype in Shantiniketan. He says: “These toilets are unique because we use these old buses to create them, which also means our installation costs are significantly lower. The Shantiniketan washrooms have three ladies’ washrooms, a gender-neutral washroom, a bathing area and a changing room, which also serves as a breastfeeding area.

The toilets are managed by the women of Bolpur Mahila Mahasangha. In order to supplement their income, the front part of the toilet is used as a pantry. SHG women are also encouraged to sell light refreshments and drinks.

“We implemented this project under the Mission Nirmal Bangla program. The district administration gave us funds for hygiene and sanitation projects for women,” explains Yasmin Sultana, head of SHG.

The current functional toilets have been installed in Shantiniketan and the next are being built along the highway in Chhattisgarh.

Ankit Chandak, interior designer and friend of Diptendu, helped design the toilets. Diptendu says: “Without his technical know-how, the implementation of this project would have been very difficult. He quit his usual job and joined me knowing full well that it doesn’t pay as well.

“It was a personally satisfying project,” notes Ankit. “I saw how many lives we could impact with the implementation. One of the challenges was to create a space that wouldn’t be overwhelming for the user. We had to work with what we had and make sure that it looked good, had enough space and was functional.

Go through roadblocks

toilet
The end product.

Diptendu acknowledges that many such initiatives have been launched in the past, but relies on the fact that there remains a huge gap in the availability of public toilets. Regardless, it took him nearly two years to implement the idea, and he says there were many challenges along the way. “A lot of unexpected things happened along the way – from the last two years of dealing with COVID-19, to getting married and setting up a home alongside this business.”

“There were times when my wife’s relatives asked me what I had done, and when I explained that I was building public toilets, it always made people laugh. No one could understand my decision to leave a good private job for this,” he says.

He says his belief in the larger goal of making travel comfortable for women drove him to keep going. “That, and the support I received from my wife. She honestly ran the house. It allowed me to explore and work on this exciting project,” he adds.

He recalls another nasty comment he heard while on the incubator program. “I was asked how I would explain building toilets as a job I did to my future children. The way I was asked came as a shock to me.

These comments and teasing only reinforced his conviction to succeed. “I am also very committed to ensuring that all jobs are equal. No job is too low to do. It’s my small contribution to make women traveling, especially on the highway, comfortable,” he says.

Sources:

“Bladder and bowel dysfunction”: published by John Hopkins Medicine

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