World's biggest toilet-building spree is under way in India

File photo showing residential and commercial buildings in Mumbai, India.
File photo showing residential and commercial buildings in Mumbai, India. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

MUMBAI (BLOOMBERG) - India is on the greatest toilet-building spree in human history, and it's a windfall for companies.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's US$20 billion (S$27.22 billion) "Clean India" mission aims to construct 111 million latrines in five years.

Besides promising to improve the health, safety and dignity of hundreds of millions of Indians, the national hygiene drive has spurred an 81 per cent jump in sales of concrete building materials and 48 per cent increase in bathroom and sanitaryware sales, according to Euromonitor International.

That's benefiting firms from Tata Group, the nation's largest conglomerate, to cleaning-products maker Reckitt Benckiser Group Plc.

Almost 80 million household toilets are estimated to have been built since Mr Modi's 2014 pledge to ensure universal sanitation coverage by October 2019, which will mark 150 years since the birth of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi.

The scale-up of latrines and a nationwide campaign to encourage their use is driving a market for toilet-related products and services that's predicted to double to US$62 billion by 2021.

"It's the biggest, most successful behaviour-change campaign in the world," said Dr Val Curtis, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine's Environmental Health Group, who has worked on the programme in India.

"Every time I go there, I feel like I can't sit down for weeks after because I'm excited about what they're doing. It's incredible."

Bollywood Star Bollywood celebrity Akshay Kumar, star of the sanitation-promoting movie Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (or Toilet: A Love Story), was appointed brand ambassador this month for Harpic, the bowl-cleaner made by Reckitt Benckiser.

The Slough, England-based company, which also sells the disinfectant Dettol, dominates the toilet care market in India, with sales climbing 11 per cent to US$105.7 million last year, Euromonitor data show.

"We are one of the most trusted brands in India, and we've always managed to outperform the market with Dettol," Mr Rakesh Kapoor, Reckitt Benckiser's India-born chief executive officer, said on a conference call in April.

The company has been able to increase awareness of its cleaning products by working with open-defecation-free communities and households to promote sanitation and hygiene.

Before Mr Modi began the Clean India programme, known locally as the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan mission, the country accounted for more than half of the world's 1.1 billion people who routinely relieve themselves in fields, beaches and other open spaces.

So-called open defecation contaminates food and drinking water, and spreads diarrhoeal diseases that cause chronic malnutrition and childhood stunting - a burden the World Bank estimated costs India 6.4 per cent of its gross domestic product.

"Sanitation is a basic need that is denied to a majority of the Indian population," said Mr Rajeev Kher, chief executive officer of SaraPlast Pvt Ltd, a closely-held manufacturer, supplier and cleaner of restrooms, including portable toilets for rent.

 
 
 
 

Mr Kher has also converted aged buses into mobile toilets to provide a "clean and safe toilet experience" for women in a collaboration with municipal authorities in the western city of Pune.

For individual households, Japan's LIXIL Group has supplied tens of thousands of twin pit toilet systems that costs US$10 or less apiece to facilitate the safe management of excreta in the absence of a sewage connection.

Increased government spending on toilets and sanitation augers well for Indian Hume Pipe Co, according to Mr Pallav Agarwal, an analyst with Antique Stock Broking Ltd in Mumbai, who rates the pipe company a buy.

It secured a dozen major work orders for water supply and sewerage projects across six states in the 2018 fiscal year, totalling 20.9 billion rupees (S$414.57 million), Mr Agarwal said in a July 5 report.

Mumbai-based Tata Group's steel division makes Nest-In, a modular toilet that comes with an option for a bio-digester. The company has been focusing on products for end-users, including modular housing and toilets, and in March opened public toilet blocks at rest stops along a national highway.

"Private sector enterprises have to pitch in to make the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan successful," said Mr Prabhat Pani, head of partnerships and technology at Tata Trusts, which owns two-thirds of Tata Sons, the apex company of Tata Group.