Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE - @suni­ta­nar

SWACHH BHARAT Mis­sion, the govern­ment’s much-needed flag­ship pro­gramme, is not just about build­ing toi­lets. It is about build­ing toi­lets that peo­ple can use, and most im­por­tantly, are linked to the waste dis­posal and treat­ment sys­tems. This much is clear. But how will this be done? This is still a mil­lion dol­lar ques­tion. The rea­son is that we do not even know where our waste comes from and where it goes.

My col­leagues stud­ied the exc­reta sums of dif­fer­ent cities. The city “shit-flow” di­a­gram shows that the sit­u­a­tion is grim as all cities ei­ther do not treat or safely dis­pose the bulk of the hu­man exc­reta. This is be­cause we of­ten con­fuse toi­lets with san­i­ta­tion. But the fact is that toi­lets are mere re­cep­ta­cles to re­ceive waste; when we flush or pour wa­ter, the waste flows into a piped drain, which could be ei­ther con­nected, or not, to a sewage treat­ment plant ( stp). This stp could be work­ing, or not. In this case, the fae­cal sludge— hu­man exc­reta—could be con­veyed, but not safely dis­posed as it would be dis­charged into the near­est river, lake or a drain. All this will pol­lute.

In most cities, this con­nec­tion from the flush to the stp does not ex­ist. Ac­cord­ing to Cen­sus 2011, the flush wa­ter of some 30 per cent of ur­ban In­dia is con­nected to a piped sewer. But our sur­vey found that in most cases, th­ese un­der­ground drains have ei­ther lost their con­nec­tions—they need re­pair—or are not con­nected to stps.

There is an­other route for exc­reta to flow. The house­hold flush or pour la­trine could be con­nected to a sep­tic tank, which, if it is well con­structed, will re­tain the sludge and dis­charge the liq­uid through a soak pit. The fae­cal sludge would still need to be emp­tied and con­veyed for treat­ment. But in most cases, our sur­vey found the sep­tic tank is not built to any spec­i­fi­ca­tions—it is a “box” to con­tain exc­reta—and it is ei­ther con­nected to a drain or emp­tied out. This is where the drama of fae­cal sludge be­gins.

Who col­lects it? How is it trans­ported, and most im­por­tantly, where does it go? No­body knows. There is a fo­cus on san­i­ta­tion— pro­vid­ing toi­lets—and, a fo­cus on pol­lu­tion—build­ing stps. But the fact is that the bulk of In­dian house­holds with ac­cess to san­i­ta­tion are con­nected to sep­tic tanks—40 per cent of ur­ban In­dia, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­sus, 2011. It is also a fact that as un­der­ground sew­er­age is un­avail­able, peo­ple, in­clud­ing large builders, have no op­tions to pro­vide con­tain­ment of hu­man exc­reta on-site. They build sep­tic tanks and call for help to re­move the fae­cal sludge and take it some­where else. Our es­ti­mate is that ev­ery day we gen­er­ate roughly 1.75 mil­lion tonnes of this “waste”—even more than the es­ti­mated solid waste gen­er­ated in the country.

This is the sewage col­lec­tor’s tanker busi­ness—in al­most all cities, it is pri­vate, thriv­ing and un­der­ground. The eco­nom­ics are sim­ple: tankers with pipes suck and empty the sewage for a fee that ranges be­tween 800 and 1,200 per visit. The fae­cal sludge is then emp­tied into the near­est drain, river, lake, even a field or for­est.

I see this ev­ery day on the road out­side our of­fice in Delhi. The tankers are ubiq­ui­tous—you will not even no­tice them. But watch care­fully, and you will see a pipe ex­tended from the tanker emp­ty­ing into the mu­nic­i­pal stormwa­ter drain, right out­side a ma­jor hospi­tal. This drain will make its way to the river. It is no won­der that clean­ing our rivers re­mains a far­fetched dream.

But this is not all bad news. The fact is that sep­tic tanks are de­cen­tralised waste col­lec­tion sys­tems. In­stead of think­ing of build­ing an un­der­ground sew­er­age net­work—that is never built or never com­pleted—it would be best to think of th­ese sys­tems as the fu­ture of ur­ban san­i­ta­tion. Af­ter all, we have gone to mo­bile tele­phony, with­out the land­line. In­di­vid­ual sep­tic tanks could be the way to achieve full san­i­ta­tion so­lu­tions.

This de­mands three changes. One, govern­ments recog­nise that th­ese sys­tems ex­ist, and what is needed is to in­cor­po­rate them in fu­ture san­i­ta­tion plans. Two, they pro­vide over­sight to the build­ing of th­ese sys­tems—the codes ex­ist, but they need to be im­ple­mented and struc­tures cer­ti­fied. Three, they pro­vide min­i­mal reg­u­la­tion for the col­lec­tion and trans­porta­tion fae­cal sludge busi­ness so that waste is taken for treat­ment, and not dumped some­where.

And most crit­i­cally, city govern­ments must work out the treat­ment sys­tem for fae­cal sludge. This is where the real rub lies. The fact is that this sludge is nu­tri­ent rich. To­day, the global ni­tro­gen cy­cle is be­ing de­stroyed be­cause we take hu­man exc­reta, which is rich in nu­tri­ents and dis­pose it in wa­ter. In this case, we can re­turn the hu­man exc­reta back to land, use it as fer­tiliser and re­verse the san­i­ta­tion cy­cle. The fae­cal sludge, af­ter treat­ment, can be given to farm­ers and used as or­ganic com­post. Or, it can be treated and mixed with other or­ganic waste—like kitchen waste—and used for bio­gas, or to man­u­fac­ture fuel pel­lets or ethanol. The tech­nolo­gies ex­ist.

But for all this to hap­pen, the na­tion must know: where do its flushed exc­reta go? Ask and find out.

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