Meet the SHEROES - Mayuri Bhattacharjee
Mayuri Bhatacharjee realized at the age of 26 that she wasn’t growing her flame. This is when she discovered her interest in keep the country clean and founded LooWatch. She talks about her love for toilets and sanitation -
Tell us more about yourself.
I am from Tezpur, a small city in Assam, my mother is school teacher in a government school and my father runs a family-owned 102 year old civil engineering firm.
I did my Masters in Human Rights from the University of Calcutta and also a PG Diploma in Mass Communications from Jadavpur University simultaneously.
In 2011, I joined a media firm in Kolkata and later shifted to its publication wing, where I worked as an Assistant Editor for the B2B journal Urban News Digest.
In 2013, at the age of 26, I started questioning what I was doing, and I realized that the work I was doing didn’t ‘grow my flame’. Since my Presidency days I had always wanted to work in the development sector and gradually build up my own NGO or social enterprise During my stint as an Assistant Editor, I discovered my deep interest in sanitation, so when I quit I knew what I’d be doing.
I initially worked on a venture idea of having a system of highway toilets in India. As a female traveler I suffered a lot due to pathetic sanitation facilities on our highways. Around this time I had also applied with my idea at The DO School in Hamburg, an informal educational institution which offers one-year programs enabling emerging social entrepreneurs to launch their own innovative and sustainable ventures. I was selected to be part of the fellow cohort of 2014 and spent 10 weeks in Germany for the Incubation Phase. A few months later I started working on laying the foundation for LooWatch.
In February 2015, I came in contact with Dr Kamal Kar, who is a legend in the sanitation sector because of his revolutionary Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) approach and I started working with him because I wanted to train myself in the CLTS approach.
What was it that made you start-up LooWatch?
When I came back after the 10 weeks Incubation Phase at The DO School, I started doing my initial research and one day I was speaking to my father about my venture and he remarked, “Why sanitation? Why don’t you choose some other glamorous issue to work upon? People will laugh when you talk about building toilets?”
I must confess that I didn’t like what my father said, toilets and sanitation had become my passion by then. I realized it wasn’t just him, a lot of people cringed when I talked about toilets. There was a disconnect somewhere and I asked myself, “How could talking about a basic necessity be treated like a taboo?”
Another incident which made me initiate LooWatch was a brush with an officer in Kolkata Municipal Corporation last year. I had read in some articles that Kolkata apparently has some 180 pay & use toilets, I looked up the website of the Corporation but was unable to find a list of these toilets. This information should’ve been be on public domain.
I visited the Bustee Services department that looks after pay & use toilets in the city where I asked a senior official, if as a citizen I could get information on the location of public toilets. He was taken aback with my question and very roughly replied, “Such information CANNOT be disseminated publicly. There is long procedure to get this information and we have to assess whether you are eligible to get it.” I realized that perhaps this attitude was prevalent because we, the citizens have been disconnected with the ground situation in our cities and towns and perhaps a basic necessity like a public toilet didn’t merit our attention, because may be it wasn’t a ‘palatable’ issue in the first place.
You say, you are breaking toilet taboos and not building toilets. What exactly do you include in breaking toilet taboos?
In the past one year, thanks to the central government, sanitation has received a renewed focus with billions of investment from the public and the private sector, however from my interaction with sanitation professionals I have heard the same line again and again,” Toilets are a taboo and sanitation isn’t really a ‘sexy’ area to work in.”
I feel that the sanitation crisis facing the world is so huge that it is everybody’s business to do their bit to tackle it. With the power of the internet and smartphones starting campaigns and sharing knowledge has become easier and this is where a citizen can pitch in to contribute towards changing the sanitation scene in her community.
Therefore, breaking taboos includes knowledge sharing, writing, initiating conversations and addressing campaigns to local governments about sanitation in our cities and towns. Through such activities we can improve what is already there and also help the local governments to choose locations which are not served by public toilets.
What is it that you are providing with Loo Watch and where does it have presence right now?
Loo Watch is a global platform for citizens to share toilet ratings, blog on issues related to sanitation and also initiate campaigns on the website and social media platforms.
So far, we have received user ratings with photos from West Bengal, Assam, Delhi and also Ecuador as a part of our ‘Love Thy Loo’ campaign. We are also receiving blogs from supporters which bring to light the problems, best practices and also give us food for thought on issues related to toilets.
We are growing and I hope that in the next three months we have thriving community with at least 200 members.
How do you see the initiative growing?
My vision is to have Loo Watch chapter in various countries, because people use toilets everywhere and most of the countries still need to do a lot about providing good sanitation facilities to their citizens.
A message to all SHEROES out there.
It is tough to take that first step, but it is tougher to keep on working, so you should have a good reason to start-up. For me it is a dirty highway toilet which gave me an infection and when I remember the pain that I had to go through, I remember why I wanted to work in the area of sanitation and do my bit to improve sanitation facilities in my country.
There are moments you may have to change course or take a break due to adversities, but remember the reason which made you start-up and if it is good one, you will be up and running again.
Apart from this it is good to have a circle of people apart from family or mentor/mentors whom you can reach out to for objective advice. I found a great mentor in Daniela Mayrshofer who runs a prestigious consulting firm in Hamburg. She was instrumental in helping me my first steps and also in changing my course of action after I came back from the Incubation Phase of The DO School.