It’s midday in New Delhi and Naina Lal Kidwai is talking about faeces. “It’s all very well funnelling all the shit into loos, but we have to make sure the waste is properly treated, otherwise this mission is going to be the most expensive failure in history,” the 61-year-old former chair of HSBC India says firmly.

While excrement seems an unlikely subject for one of India’s most prominent businesswomen, it is in fact high on her agenda. The mission she references is the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission (SBM), launched in October 2014 by Indian Prime Minister Modi to improve sanitation in the country.

Kidwai chairs the India Sanitation Coalition, whose aim is to bring “all stakeholders in the sanitation field onto one platform where they can share information… partner and collaborate”. The goal is to make India open defecation free (ODF) for the first time, and to ensure it remains that way.

It’s a significant target – before SBM was launched, almost half of India’s 1.2 billion population defecated in the open. However, Kidwai herself is no stranger to achieving something for the first time: the first Indian woman graduate of Harvard Business School; one of the first women to train at Price Waterhouse in India; the first woman to head an investment bank in the country; and the first female president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

It’s an impressive track record and one that might lead most people to take a break on reaching retirement. But Kidwai is not most people. Having stepped down from her role at HSBC in 2015, she remains on several international corporate boards and global think tanks, and has committed half her time to the not-for-profit sector. “The good thing about retiring is that you get to build a portfolio of things you want to work on,” she says. “You may still be working 24/7, but it’s 24 hours of doing what you really want to do.”

Kidwai credits her family and her school years for inspiring her strong work ethic. Her formative years were spent under the tutorship of Irish Catholic nuns at Loreto Convent School – a decided change from Kidwai’s Hindu home. She describes herself as being “hardworking, competitive and ambitious, in that I always looked to see where I could do better” in school.

After graduating from Lady Shri Ram College in 1977, Kidwai applied to train at Price Waterhouse, where she challenged its policy against women professionals and was soon one of the first three women to train there. After her MBA at Harvard Business School in the early 1980s, Kidwai made the calculated choice to return to India. “Rather than being a very small part in a huge organisation doing deals in the US, I knew I would make a greater impact at home,” she says, noting her motivation came not from being the first person to do something, but from doing something for the first time. She worked on the first Indian company to list on the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq, and on setting up the modern, demutualised National Stock Exchange, now India’s leading exchange.  

It was not all plain sailing. At Grindlays Bank she quickly won the confidence of her employers, but had to battle to convince others. “Some people were not accustomed to having a woman lead the team. I had some clients ask, ‘Who is this you’ve sent me? I want someone more senior, or a guy’. Grindlays would just say to them, ‘Wait and see what she can do’. It was always gratifying to see the same customers who had hesitated initially, then demand that I come back and work on their assignments.”

Kidwai felt she had a responsibility not only to herself, but to women as a whole. “There was always that fear that I would let other women down. I think there was undue pressure on our generation. We felt like a goldfish in a transparent bowl, always under the spotlight.”

This focus on the enablement of women now informs her not-for-profit work. “At every level women are the most deeply impacted by lack of sanitation facilities,” she says. “So access to water and sanitation is very much linked with the education and empowerment of girls.” Kidwai has been involved in water and environmental organisations previously, but at World Water Week 2014 she realised the centrality of sanitation. “A large part of the conversations were about what a disgrace India was on the matter of sanitation. I thought, my gosh, look at the way the world views us. If we want progress and GDP growth, we have to be able to tackle this area.” Kidwai and her husband, along with partners including WaterAid and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, began to strategise, laying the groundwork for the India Sanitation Coalition. A few months later, Prime Minister Modi announced the Swachh Bharat Mission, and the goal of ODF. “We couldn’t believe our good fortune. Here we were just getting started up on the same thing. It gave us added incentive to get cracking,” Kidwai says.

The health hazards of open defecation are far-reaching, leading to higher infant mortality rates and contributing to India’s high rate of stunting – 38 per cent of Indian children under five are stunted, meaning they may not develop fully. There is also significant impact on economic growth, both in higher health costs and fewer healthy people joining the workforce. The World Bank estimates lack of sanitation costs India more than 6 per cent of its GDP.

SBM’s website shows more than 66 million household toilets have been built so far, and 80 per cent of the country is now ODF. Despite these impressive figures, Kidwai concedes the Mission will not achieve an ODF India by 2019. “The goal was always huge and very ambitious, so the fact that we don’t achieve it is less critical than the fact that we’re on the journey to getting there.” Kidwai’s Coalition is turning its attention to the second phase of the project – ensuring adequate infrastructure to treat the sewage from millions of newly built toilets.

The Coalition has faced issues convincing everyone to change their ways. Men are often the most reluctant to adapt, and where education and communication initially fail, other strategies have been employed. In one case, villages were only converted to ODF when told that marriageable women would avoid them altogether unless they cleaned up their act. In others, groups of children have been given whistles and told to track down and alert others to those not using designated toilets.

From establishing new financial institutions, to changing entrenched habits and attitudes, Kidwai’s legacy appears set to last, although she demurs. “Legacy is too big a word,” she laughs. “But I’d like to believe that I’ve planted the seeds that will create the movements for tomorrow in what is critical. And I would love to believe that the work that I, and so many people, have put into these important movements doesn’t fade away. That’s the impetus to keep going and make it happen, that there’s enough people out there now that will not let it die.”