But customer satisfaction is only one of the reasons that made Fuad Lokhandwala abandon his failing leather export business and put his money instead into a chain of public toilets in Delhi. The lanky, taciturn, cigar-smoking former NRI was disgusted with India for familiar NRI reasons: "slip-shod, short-term ways of doing business," the low standards everywhere, and, of course, the filth. But what really got him started was Jay Leno's jibe nearly four years ago on his Tonight Show about India becoming a nuclear power while still unable to provide toilets for its people. Lokhandwala, much riled, decided it was time to build toilets in India and what's more, make a healthy profit out of them. Selling it to the urban affairs ministry was easy, especially when he assured the government that it would cost them nothing, not even the price they pay Sulabh International for building public pay toilets. Not even running water—Lokhandwala was going to dig his own well. The business school graduate planned to make his "healthy profit" in American style—by selling advertising space to private companies. Not unnaturally, companies were not too anxious to advertise their products over public urinals. But one or two visits to his first project in Delhi's elite Khan Market was sufficient. "Everyone laughed at me while I was building it. Marble, glass windows, potted plants—they thought I was mad," recalls Lokhandwala.
Three years and a chain of 17 toilets later, Lokhandwala's first public convenience is as swanky as any of the shops in this upper crust market, thanks to his uncompromising standards of maintenance: two trained full-time attendants clean the toilets after every use in 8-hour shifts, and a chowkidar guards the premises after closing hours (10 pm to 7 am). His method? "There are no short cuts. It's the customer's job to make a mess, it is my attendants' job to clean up." "The entry fee of Re 1 (urinal) and Rs 2 (lavatory) is only to prevent abuse. The money for maintenance, including electricity, water, staff salary, licence fees, and my profits are from advertisements," explains he.
Clearly, the profits are tidy, judging by the number of entrepreneurs now jumping into the fray. So far, the NDMC has granted licences to private parties for the rebuilding and running of 40 public conveniences. "This will only work as long as entrepreneurs take good care to maintain the facilities," says Lokhandwala, welcoming the competition. And it's because of maintenance that he's declining the offers to build similar facilities in other cities. "I'm still not able to crystallise a system by which these toilets will work without my supervision," he confesses.
The business is not only expanding, it's diversifying. Last year Lokhandwala decided to exercise his aesthetic and business acumen on another of the city's eyesores: the garbage dumps.He has now sold the NDMC his concept of "garbage stations." Like his public toilets, these too are things of beauty, tile-roofed, granite-and-marble floored, spanking clean outlets where the public can deposit their garbage at three polished counters: plastic/metal, paper and organic waste. The smartly-dressed attendants accept garbage that even the kabadiwala refuses. The business potential: advertisements again, this time over the garbage stations.
Things have changed quite a bit since Lokhandwala started his first public toilet. "Now we have customers at the toilets demanding to know why the water is not of good quality, or why can't we provide better napkins or soap," points out the finicky entrepreneur.
For Lokhandwala, these complaints are the best compliment. "It shows you how fast people get accustomed to the best services. You just had to raise the standards."