MY VIEW: Two Brilliant Solutions For Addressing India’s Huge Sanitation Crisis

India’s sanitation crisis is immense and not easily solved. Over 600 million people in rural and urban areas defecate in the open.  The nation cannot incessantly wait.  Two recently developed solutions may help.

The magnitude of India’s sanitation crisis may be summed up in one sentence: two-thirds of urban residents do not have toilets and access to the sewer grid, and over 600 million people in rural and urban areas defecate in the open.  Where the grid does not serve toilets, faeces is periodically collected from unsustainable septic tanks and pit latrines to be discarded in open areas, landfill sites, lakes, and freshwater sources.  The tragedy of our commons therefore multiplies manifold, as do health consequences.

Health costs associated with poor or unavailable sanitation cost the nation 6% of her GDP.

Smart ‘Plug & Play’ Toilet Units Are Hygienic, Self Contained and ‘Green’

Smart ‘Plug & Play’ Toilet Units Are Hygienic, Self Contained and ‘Green’

Photo: smartbox.ae

Unplanned Urbanisation, Catch-up Network

India proposes to address the sanitation crisis head on.  Through the Clean India Initiative launched last year, more than 10 million toilets are proposed for construction.  The initiative also aims at elimination of open defecation in another four years.  The question here is not ‘why’, it is ‘how’.

In following the beaten path of the sewer grid, developing nations confront three southern limitations.  First, urbanisation beats network growth big time.  No city in India offers a ubiquitous grid; less than half of Delhi, Bengaluru and Hyderabad have plug-and-play toilets.  The wait for the grid is at least two generations long.  This is akin to a doctor informing a patient with palpitations that he or she will have to wait for thirty years for an appointment!  Do this to 600 million people and you can only imagine the magnitude of the sanitation crisis.

This brings us to the second limitation.  Tax redistribution at the going rate is grossly inadequate.  While urban India needs to invest USD 40 billion over twenty years on the grid, USD 825 million per annum was budgeted by all levels of government for the past five years on sewer connectivity.  To this, one may add USD 75 million through the Clean India cess introduced nationwide from the November 15, 2015.  India cannot possibly consume generations in waiting?  How about urbanisation accruing 300 million more residents in twenty years?  The network will therefore always play catch-up; how soon is anyone’s guess but everyone’s hazard!

Third, the nation has its urban public finance strategy amiss.  Property tax, the local revenue mainstay, merely accounts for about half a percent of national GDP and cannot finance the sanitation needs of the nation.

Two Sustainable Solutions

The nation cannot incessantly wait.  Two recently developed solutions may find mention here.

The first, the DRDO Bio-Digestion Toilet, a serendipitous innovation born from the need for sanitation for army personnel in the Himalayas, was not invented to address the civilian sanitation crisis.

Bio toilets

Bio toilets

Soldiers stationed in the high altitude regions of Siachen and Ladakh need toilets and sustainable disposal of human waste.  Scientists at DRDO (Defence Research Development Organisation) chanced upon a strain of bacteria, Psychrophile, on a scientific expedition in Antarctica in the 1990s.  They brought home a strain of the bacteria and subsequently developed a microbial consortium comprising four clusters of bacteria from Antarctica and other low temperature areas.

Following research, the consortium was introduced in their makeshift toilets in Siachen and Ladakh. As these bacteria thrive in extreme temperatures, the experiment succeeded and was emulated, but largely within the confines of the army establishment.  It was not until 2012 that the technology gained ground elsewhere, including in the Indian Railways.

Introduced into a chamber constructed below the water closet, the self-sustaining bacteria feed upon the faeces; the anaerobic process degrades the matter within 48 hours.  These odour free, water-sealed, off-grid toilets are a sustainable alternative to septic tanks and pit latrines, the mainstay of sanitation in the south.  The small one-time price to procure the inoculum (Rs. 6,000) possesses the potential to transform Indian urban space.

More than fifty developers have signed up to build these toilets in various parts of the country, and retrofit septic tanks and pit latrines sustainably.

Illustration of an off-grid toilet

Illustration of an off-grid toilet

At about the same time the DRDO toilet was available for civilian use in 2012, a retired Chief Engineer from Andhra Pradesh, M Dharma Rao, developed an affordable alternative.  The inoculum is replaced by a handful of earthworms that generate compost from faeces.  Mr Dharma Rao has constructed a few hundred of these toilets in Hyderabad. Six months of toilet use produces a bucket (10 litre capacity) of compost, thus rendering the toilet maintenance free.  Mr Dharma Rao’s innovation scores high on the sustainability index; importantly, the toilet is affordable and costs less than Rs. 12,000 to build.

There probably are more undocumented solutions.  Exasperatingly, the sanitation crisis has not yet attracted the imagination of the global talent pool to develop lasting, affordable solutions.  India may want to scale up manifold innovations such as discussed.

If the years 1974 and 1989 marked important contributions from the south for mobility (Mayor Jamie Lerner’s design of the Bus Rapid Transit System for Curitiba) and municipal budgeting (Participatory Budgeting in Porto Alegre), the year 2016 should be earmarked to develop affordable, sustainable, and scalable sanitation solutions.  We cannot afford to not rid settlements of unsustainable pit latrines, septic tanks, and open defecation.

– MS Raghavendra

Featured Image Source: sanitationupdates.wordpress.com

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About the author: An urban planner by learning and alumnus of Cambridge University, MS Raghavendra teaches at Administrative Staff College of India and may be reached at [email protected]

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