Dubai: One of the recipients of this year’s Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, the Indian Government’s highest recognition for overseas Indians, is businessman Dr Siddeek Ahmed. He won the coveted diaspora award representing Saudi Arabia earlier this month. But the Keralite is as much a part of the UAE as he is of the neighbouring Gulf country.
Ahmed, who holds a Premium Residency in Saudi Arabia as well as a Golden Visa in Dubai, is a man who wears many hats. As chairman of the Eram Group, a business conglomerate with 40-odd companies, he shuttles between Al Khober, the group’s global headquarters and Dubai, its regional headquarters, overseeing its diverse interests ranging from power and oil and gas to healthcare and travel. It’s a huge ask but in spite of it all, Ahmed has pursued a mission that has drastically changed lives and earned him another title which he holds close to his heart – Toilet Titan.
In an exclusive interview with Gulf News, Ahmed explained how his home country had bestowed the unlikely title upon him after his group innovated India’s first electronic public toilet (eToilet) in 2009 and built over 4,000 automated toilets. The toilets were installed in the hope that an estimated 600 million people, defecating in the open, would have access to dignified options of closed sanitation facilities. The initiative, which began in India, has now spread across the Middle East and North Africa region.
‘Money can’t take you very far’
Ahmed, who never forgets his roots, said, “I belong to a small village called Mankara in Palakkad district of Kerala. I have come a long way from there and thanks to the Almighty, run a successful international business today. But what I have learnt along the way is that money cannot take you very far. My mother taught me early on that to have a meaningful life, one must be sensitive to other people’s needs and sufferings. And that is something that has stayed with me.”
He said it was during a visit to his native place some years ago that he realised how people, many of them women and young girls, still took to the outdoors to defecate. “During that period technology was evident in all walks of life except sanitation. I had a strong drive to address the challenges of sanitation with the help of technology. While toilets were scarce in number, even the available toilets in public spaces often got closed down as there were no people to manage them or because of lack of water etc. In order to address this, the idea of eToilets was conceived. The concept of a self-cleaning toilet was unheard of in India. I appointed a team to do necessary research and pledged that I would do whatever I could to make a difference,” said Ahmed.
‘Crazy guy’ with a bizarre idea
Calling himself a “crazy guy”, Ahmed said his idea of installing toilets across Indian cities, towns may have seemed bizarre at the outset, but thanks to the support of his team, he was able to make it a reality.
Having set up an R&D-based social enterprise called Eram Scientific Solutions (ESS), Ahmed and his team set out to develop indigenous technology tailored to local requirements. The result was the eToilet, which over the years, has taken on many improvisations and variants of the product.
From the basic eToilet, variants like She Toilets for women, disabled friendly toilets and ‘D-lite’ versions for school kids were developed. “We have a variant with a restroom too. It features napkin vending machines, a napkin incinerator, baby feeding and diaper changing station, a fan, bench and mirror. The unit remains unmanned and is safe for women to use.”
“We began with a basic model that was very simple and user-friendly. It had unmanned pre-flushing, automatic flushing and platform cleaning, inbuilt water tanks, sensors for water and power conservation and automated entry, with payment or free access,” said Ahmed.
He explained how the toilets were programmed to flush 1.5 litres of water after three minutes of usage, or 4.5 litres if usage was longer. What’s more, each toilet’s performance could be monitored via web using GPRS connectivity. Sewage treatment plants were also set up so that the waste could be suitably treated.
Support from Gates Foundation
As Eram’s eToilets began to revolutionise public sanitation in India with over 15 million users, awards poured in, as did international grants and research partnership opportunities. “We received a funding support of Rs30million over these years from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for developing the next generation smart toilets and were conferred the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge Award,” said Ahmed. “We have since continued to invest in R&D to build newer products like off-grid self-sustained Community and Public Toilets in collaboration with the foundation.”
Ahmed talked about how ESS had worked with the foundation and Caltech University in the US for a unique underground toilet and sewage treatment technology.
“Recently, we also developed a new reactor inbuilt in a toilet which facilitates the permanent and safe use of recycled water,” he said. “On-site waste treatment through bio-digesters help a lot. These sewage treatment plants are highly reliable and effluents cause no harm to the environment.”
The vast network of eToilets also has an exclusive mobile app through which one can search for and locate the nearest eToilet, now a familiar sight in as many as 18 smart cities in India.
Ahmed believes there is much more ground to cover still. “I am very grateful I work with a set of people who are the real flag bearers of Eram and make me realise my vision” he said, adding that it was for this reason that he had dedicated the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman to them.