Revisiting Sammaan

moved to India in February 2012 in order to head up the manifold communications activities for Project Sammaan, an initiative born out of a year-long ethnographic study of sanitation practices and habits of those in India’s urban slums and seeking to holistically reimagine the user experience at community sanitation facilities. Those initial, halcyon days were full of great optimism and a pervasive sense that we were working on something groundbreaking that could prove to be a foil to the persistence of open-defecation, a daily reality for more than half of India’s population due to failures in infrastructure, education, policy, and compassion. Little did we know then of the innumerable and, at times, absurd challenges that awaited us.

Part of my role as the project’s communications lead included maintaining and writing for a website-cum-blog that was intended to capture and share learnings from the initiative in as close to real-time as possible. There I chronicled in fairly painful detail the trials, tribulations, and, ultimately, successes of the project; I’ll not go into too great a detail rehashing the road bumps here, but will provide a little context for the uninitiated.

The initial scope of the project called for the design of community sanitation facilities that would address identified failures in the existing approach with respect to infrastructure, operations and maintenance, branding and communications, and business models. Taking a human-centered approach, we engaged with people in slum communities to better understand their perceptions and behaviors, as well as their unmet needs and aspirations both generally speaking as well as in regards to sanitation. These intimate engagements allowed us to incorporate new interventions (e.g., child potties, clothes-washing stations, menstrual waste incinerators), to improve the facility design, to address last-mile waste treatment issues, to provide more community ownership of the facilities, to build awareness and agency through communications efforts, and to ultimately develop behavior change strategies to ensure early adoption and continued use.

Initially, the plan was to address all design needs and challenges, build over 100 facilities across two cities, sensitize people to the new amenities, and open the facilities for use within a year’s time. Following this, a randomized control trial would provide a robust impact evaluation on the interventions we were experimenting with. The total project timeline was less than two years, an aggressive schedule that betrayed a bit of our quixotic naïveté. Ultimately, our engagement with the project would persist for nearly four years, during which my role evolved to project lead and required living in one of the host cities for over 15 months in order to address the daily fire drills that seemed to persist unabated; construction of the facilities is on-going to this day, more than 6 years since the project’s inception.

We overcame hurdles ranging from the significant (e.g., taking ownership of last-mile waste treatment, finding replacement sites when land was lost due to development, near-constant turnover at the offices of our government partners, etc.) to the ridiculous (e.g., having to sign every single page of each site report, totaling thousands and thousands of pages/signatures). The project became a bit of a test of our collective will as the months and years stretched out before us. It is in times like this, though, that one learns a great deal about oneself and those around them; our team persevered throughout, and never lost sight of the bigger picture: that literally tens of thousands of people were depending on us to bring life-changing, and arguably life-saving, sanitation solutions to their communities.

When our work was completed, and it came time for me to pack up our field office which doubled as my apartment, it was a very emotional time. We had for years poured our hearts and souls into the project, and it was difficult to let go and hand ownership of the next phases of the project to our partners. As with a parent sending a child off to college, we could only hope that we had done our best and that things would proceed smoothly in our absence.

It took a few more years of effort for the facilities to be constructed. Though we’d move on to other projects, Sammaan was never far from our minds and we kept tabs on how matters were progressing. We revelled in each victory and lamented each setback. And we shed tears of pure joy when the first of the Sammaan facilities was opened and handed over to the community it would serve.

As I previously said, I moved here in order to work on Project Sammaan. I had hoped then that I would be able to handle the move to India so that I could be here throughout the entire duration of the project. This was when I thought it’d be around 2 years or so. I would’ve never imagined that some 6 years later I’d still be here and work on Sammaan would be ongoing. After an incredible time here working on amazing projects, not least of which Sammaan, I made the decision to move back to the United States, to move on to the next chapter in life. I knew, though, that my adventure in India would not be complete until I visited the Sammaan facilities and saw for myself the brick-and-mortar fruits of our labor, so recently I did just that.

Returning to a place that you spent so much time in and had such significant experiences can be a little disorienting. As an expat, I pretty much experience this annually when I return to the United States for visits, but returning to Bhubaneswar and Cuttack, the host cities for Sammaan in India’s Odisha state, felt different. Perhaps it was because the time there was so intense or maybe it was simply due to the heightened senses one experiences the world with as a particularly formative chapter of their life draws to a close; either way, being back in those communities brought wave after wave of emotion as memories flooded back in.

Paradoxically, I oftentimes simultaneously feel like I have just arrived here in India and have been here forever. I’ve grown accustomed to life here and feel content and comfortable at, and with my, work; I’ve settled in quite nicely. However, there still are manifold times, seemingly daily, that I’m jarred from that complacency and reminded of just how far from home I am, and just how different this reality is from those previously known. I think, though, that the disorientation I felt during this visit to Odisha owes to the fact that I had first visited there in just my second week in India so many years ago. I guess it’d be a bit like visiting your first dorm room in college or first ever place of employment: it transports you fully back to those days mixed with excitement and unease.

Walking through the communities that I’d spent so much time in, recognizing people that I’d not seen in years, and grappling with the reality that their station in life remained little-changed was overwhelming to an extent. It’s akin to when I arrive back in New York, and realize that despite the familiarity life has moved on; the location, much like myself, may be familiar but it has changed, evolved. The difference in Odisha, though, was that now there stood in these communities that which we worked so hard to provide.

Seeing the first Sammaan facility was beyond exciting. I couldn’t stop smiling. My colleagues and friends Ahmed and Sumant, who’d been and still are so integral to the project, drove me around the twin cities to visit as many facilities as possible. It was awesome in the truest sense of the term to fully appreciate the scale of what we had accomplished; though fewer in number than planned, there seemed to be Sammaan facilities everywhere!

The final facility that I visited was in a community that’s in particularly rough shape. There had been one essentially non-functioning toilet block featuring 4 stalls that were shared amongst all of the thousands of residents. Now, though, they have one of our larger facilities, featuring toilets, clothes-washing stations, child potties, bathing stalls, menstrual waste incinerators, and more. It’s been open for around 8 months now and is completely managed by the community. It was absolutely spotless and all amenities are fully functioning, which is certainly not the case with most community toilet facilities in India. The residents had even decorated it to make it even more their own, and it has seemingly become a community gathering point as adults and children alike were hanging out on its grounds.

This may sound a bit hyperbolic, but that scene to me was absolute validation: despite the challenges, irrespective of the sacrifices, and disregarding the years of sustained effort it took to provide that amenity, the community it serves appreciates and uses it.

I came to India ostensibly to find more fulfillment in my career. On a personal level, though, I was also seeking to prove to myself that the idealized person I hoped to be was possible; that through personal sacrifice and via some altruistic acts I could eschew feelings of disappointment and regret my past actions imbued in me and become the person I wanted to be. Ironically, “sammaan” is Hindi for “dignity, respect”. We named the project that as it is what we intended to provide to those needy communities. In the end, it appears that they weren’t the only ones to receive such.