July 17, 2014
In Sumit Deori’s tiny yard surrounded by bamboo fencing, stands an even tinier room with walls and a door made from a single blue plastic sheet draped around four bamboo poles.
It hardly looks like an effective bulwark against death and disease.
Yet, for the small farmer in Jorhat, a city in the oil-rich eastern Indian state of Assam, this basic but sanitised toilet stands between life and death for his family – wife Purnima and their one-year-old son – especially during the monsoon, when diarrhoea and other water-borne diseases wreak havoc in India, Nepal and Bangladesh.
Deori built his prize toilet after taking a micro loan from ASOMI, an NGO working in the field of sanitation and safe drinking water.
The old toilet used to be a mere pit in the ground covered by a bamboo thatch. Each year when rain flooded the area, sewage from the pit rose and swirled through the Deoris’ hut, raising a stink and putting them at the mercy of epidemics.
The Assamese farmer’s situation was not unique. In India, a land of 1.27 billion people, nearly 19% of urban households have no toilet, according to the 2011 census. In rural areas, this figure is as high as 70% and open defecation is common practice.
For passengers taking a train ride through the impoverished eastern states of Bihar and West Bengal, the early morning view includes rows of people squatting on train tracks doing their morning ablutions, heedless of the passers-by.
Many existing toilets are just holes in the ground, causing untreated human waste to overflow and contaminate drinking water sources, especially during monsoon floods.
“At a rough estimate, we require at least 100 million household toilets in the country to prevent defecation in the open,” says Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of Sulabh, the affordable sanitation movement in India.
Established in 1970, the non-profit Sulabh International Social Service Organisation builds public toilets in India and other developing countries, keeping both costs and the use of water low.
Ironically, India has one of the oldest sewerage systems in the world, introduced in the nineteenth century by the British colonial rulers. However, the British government adopted the two technologies used in London for waste disposal – the septic tank and the sewerage system, which proved a white elephant in India, Pathak says.
“This system requires a huge investment, both for construction and maintenance, as well as an enormous quantity of water to flush the waste,” he explains. “Therefore in India, out of 7,933 towns and cities only 270 have sewerage treatment plants. In 900 towns and cities, drains have been laid without any sewerage treatment plant.”
Pathak was inspired to devise Sulabh’s own brand of affordable, eco-friendly compost toilets based on Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of “tatti pe mitti” – covering human excreta with soil so as not to attract flies that carry bacteria into homes. “Sulabh toilets can be built with local materials like brick, stone, burnt clay rings, wood and even used tar drums,” Pathak adds.
The Sulabh toilets have two pits to store waste. When the first is full, the waste is switched over to the second one. After two years, the contents of the first pit has become bio-fertiliser containing phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium, which can be used for farming.
Another option is generating bio-gas from the excreta.
Biogas systems using human excreta have a number of advantages. As Pathak highlights: “It improves sanitation, generates energy and fertiliser and reduces the greenhouse effect.”
Besides, the flushing system is devised in such a way that it reduces the use of water. “Sulabh toilets require only 1 litre of water for flushing, while the conventional toilet requires 10 litres,” says Pathak.
The eco-toilets can also be constructed in different physical, geological and hydro-geological conditions. Sulabh is proud of the five public toilet complexes with biogas plants it built in Kabul in 2007. “That year, the temperature went down to minus 30 degrees Celsius,” Pathak reminisces. “Yet all the toilets remained functional.”
To add to all these advantages, there is the cost factor. The Sulabh flush compost toilets cost between 1,500 to 55,000 Indian rupees (US$25-900), depending on the design.
The Indian government launched its first nationwide rural sanitation programme in 1986 to provide homes with sanitation, safe water and waste disposal. This was followed by a “Total Sanitation Campaign” in 1999 that also included raising public awareness, especially in villages, and providing funding to households living below the poverty level to build toilets.
The government has also announced its target to end open-air defecation by 2022, with plans to build around 10 million toilets.
But Pathak wonders how effective state plans will be, given the slow pace of bureaucracy and India’s burgeoning population.
“India’s population is rising,” he says. “It’s putting pressure on the existing infrastructure. Then there is the exodus of people from the villages to urban areas in search of livelihoods. That is also aggravating the situation.”
In his estimate, India currently produces about 960 million tonnes of solid waste annually. Besides human excreta, this includes waste generated from industrial, mining and agricultural processes.
Pathak advocates state subsidies to tackle the lack of toilets. “It’s an economic issue,” he says. “The state should provide loans to build a toilet per household, like it provides money to the needy to buy tractors or build a house.”
With the government slow to act, non-profit organisations are playing a major role in India’s toilet revolution. Water.org, a social enterprise that focuses on providing universal access to safe water and toilets, recognises that there will never be enough philanthropy to dig wells or install a toilet for every person who needs one. So the enterprise is exploring alternative ways to finance and deliver access to safe water and sanitation.
One of its initiatives is a micro finance scheme, WaterCredit. Started in 2003, it hands out small loans to individuals, such as Deori in Assam, to access safe water and sanitation.
Pathak says the absence of a basic toilet for all is affecting the progress of the nation in the long run. “Poor sanitation in India has harmful effects on many aspects of human welfare – education, mobility, livelihoods and general well being,” he says.