Having launched a global quest to “reinvent the toilet” last year, Bill Gates — Microsoft founder-turned-philanthropist — could soon turn his focus on the filthy toilets used by Indian Railways passengers.
In a meeting with Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh here on Wednesday, Mr. Gates discussed the idea of jointly funding a worldwide competition to find innovative solutions for the sanitation problems faced by 11 million passengers every day as they travel on the world's most extensive rail network. With hygiene and safety at stake, Indian Railways desperately needs a low-cost toilet that is low maintenance and either completely dry or has minimal water usage, said Mr. Ramesh.
Last year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation put its formidable resources behind the hunt for Toilet 2.0, funding research projects which could help the 2.6 billion people worldwide who have no access to safe toilets. With India being home to 58 per cent of those forced to defecate in the open, Mr. Gates has agreed to hold the 2013 Reinventing the Toilet summit in the country.
It's one thing to invent new toilets, but another to get them built and put in use. Mr. Ramesh sought the Gates Foundation's help in developing effective communication campaigns to propel behavioural changes, on the lines of the successful pulse polio campaign model.
In another area of interest to rural India, Mr. Gates expressed interest in India's experiments in digital payments. Using the Unique Identification Authority of India's Aadhaar scheme, the government has been implementing pilot projects to digitally pay pensions and Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme wages.
The Rural Development Ministry also pitched for a Rs. 200 crore grant from the Gates Foundation to the corpus of the Bharat Rural Livelihoods Foundation (BRLF), which aims to improve the lives of people in 170 tribal districts hit by Naxal violence. Mr. Gates expressed interest, but has not made any commitments as yet.
The Central government has committed Rs. 500 crore to BRLF's corpus, but the remaining Rs. 500 crore must come from private institutions.
The Rural Development Ministry is hoping that the Gates Foundation will make a grant on the lines of the Rs. 69 crore it has given to the Public Health Foundation of India.