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India – The Great Toilet Hoax #Enviornment

We have had a decade and a half of the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) of the Government of India since 1999 to stop the practice of open defecation and increase the use of toilets which were used by only 29 percent of households in the 2001 census and this proportion improved marginally to 33 percent in the 2011 census. In rural areas the proportion is even lower being below 20 percent. Generally, those associated with implementing the TSC, the governments at the centre and the states, international agencies like the World Bank and the United Nations and various international and national NGOs have waxed eloquent about the huge funds spent and the villages covered, including the announcement of thousands of villages as Nirmal Gram or open defecation free and fully toilet provided. However, they have not paused to think that why despite such a huge campaign the proportion of open defecation continues to be so high. Therefore a critique of this programme is in order.
The main thrust of the TSC has been to build pit latrines. Typically the double pit latrine shown below is considered to be a cheap solution to providing toilets being economical both in money terms and in the use of water for flushing. When one pit becomes full it is covered and the other pit is used. The pits are made big enough so that it takes eight months to a year to fill so that by the time one fills up the faeces in the other filled pit decompose into manure and can be emptied into the fields to be used as such.

However, there are various problems with these latrines that have to be taken care of. The first one is that of the stench from the pit and so it is necessary to have a vent pipe. Secondly, the superstructure should be well built and spacious enough for people to be able to sit comfortably in the toilets. Thirdly, the latrine has to be at least 50 metres away from a drinking water source or an open water body. This is because the effluent that leaches into the ground from the pit has a high pollutant level with a Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) of 700 mg/litre required for oxidising it and this requires at least 50 metres of soil. Also these latrines cannot be used in areas where the water table reaches close to the surface during the monsoons because then the effluents will directly leach into the ground water seriously polluting drinking water sources and open water bodies. Finally, there is the problem of social taboo over cleaning faeces which has condemned a set of people to do this task for generations on end. Taking out the manure from the filled pit is a heavy task and it is considered socially dirty and so it is unlikely that people will do it.
All these problems have come to the fore in the implementation of the TSC. The funds sanctioned for the construction of these latrines were low and became even lower due to the inevitable corruption and so the end user got a toilet with a small superstructure over an equally small single pit without any vent and so in most cases these toilets were never used as the people preferred to go out into the open. Even if some people did use these toilets for some time, once the pit began filling and the stench increased they were forced to desist. In some places, where the toilets have been built properly by some NGOs who have put in more funds in addition to those provided by the government, the problem of cleaning the pits cropped up after some time. Finally nowhere in the literature on TSC is there any discussion of the adverse effects that these pit latrines, when they function, have on the groundwater. If there are a number of such pit latrines in close proximity in a congested village then it can easily be imagined what this concentrated effluent discharge into the ground will do to the quality of the water being accessed from open wells and handpumps nearby. These wells and handpumps are rarely tested for the purity of their water. Thus, in an attempt to solve the problem of sanitation, the problem of the supply of potable drinking water is aggravated, especially during the monsoons when water borne diseases are rampant. In fact this is a central problem of our country that household sewage whether from poor families or the very rich is mostly released untreated into the environment causing a serious problem of water pollution throughout. There are no studies in this regard whatsoever to determine the adverse effect on water quality that these pit latrines are having. The thrust is only on constructing thousands of toilets and not on ensuring that they are of good technical quality and social acceptability for them to be used regularly. Now these pit latrines are being built nineteen to the dozen in high water table areas in Bihar and Bengal and in some cases the effluents are being released directly into the numerous water bodies that are used by the residents for bathing and washing. And now this great toilet hoax is going to be multiplied many times with the launch of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan (Clean India Campaign).
The first thing that has to be realised is that it is not enough to build a toilet but it is necessary also to ensure that it is designed well and the effluents are properly treated. The technically sound decentralised system is the septic tank plus soakpit combination which is shown below. The wastewater from the toilets coming in at the inlet goes through two chambers which reduce the BOD from 700 mg/litre to about 250 mg/litre at the outlet of the septic tank. This water is then passed through brick crush and sand and leached into the ground by which time its BOD level is about 30 mg/litre which is the permissible level for release into the ground. Here too there is the caveat that there should not be an open well within 10 metres of the soakpit and that the water table should not rise to the level of the sand during the monsoons.

However, this costs three times more than a the double pit part of the pit latrine even if it is built to cater to five toilets together. It also requires more space which is often at a premium in congested localities. There are various innovations that can be done to reduce the cost and space demand and increase the treatment efficiency of this system so that the effluent water can be recycled for flushing and irrigating the kitchen garden instead of being soaked into the ground. Even so this will require much more funds than the laughably low amounts that are currently sanctioned for toilets for the poor. Most toilets in this country in fact are serviced by septic tanks and in a majority of cases these tanks are poorly built because of the cost involved. Here too there is the problem of the tanks filling up after sometime and the accumulated sludge having to be removed. Though in one innovation in which air is pumped into the second chamber through a vacuum pump and bubble diffuser combination this last problem can be solved as the process of digestion becomes aerobic instead of anaerobic and so much less sludge is generated and most of it is pulverised by the mechanical stirring of the water by the aeration and goes out with it into the soakpit. This, however, requires some energy to be used for the aeration. If aeration is used then the effluent from the septic tank has a BOD of about 50 mg/litre and this can then be exposed to the sunlight in an open tank for further treatment and then reused for flushing and gardening.
Traditionally people have preferred to go out in the open to defecate because it is cheaper and requires less water and in an uncongested rural surrounding is hygienic also. However, with the increase in population, open spaces have become limited and shrubland has also been brought under cultivation or habitation and so often defecation takes place in a concentrated location leading to sanitation and health problems. The biggest productivity loss in the country is through sickness due to water borne diseases and this arises from untreated household wastewater and faeces being released into the environment. This problem is not there in rural areas only but throughout the country with the capital city of Delhi being the biggest polluter of open water bodies despite having close to 40 percent of the country’s sewage treatment capacity.
So instead of tomtoming the success of the TSC and seeking to replicate its devastating real failure through a much larger Swacch Bhatat Abhiyan it would be better to assess what is needed in technological and social terms to make going to toilets acceptable to people and then investing the resources required for this instead of perpetrating possibly the greatest public investment hoax among the many that have been foisted on this country by its idiotic politicians, bureaucrats and technocrats. People will first have to be shown the results of the tests on their water sources and convinced that they are losing massively due to water borne diseases which can easily be stopped by adoption of proper sanitation practices. Since the multiplier effects of a healthy population are huge the government has to spend money to make proper toilets and also to convince people of the need for sanitation instead of just beaming advertisements on television channels. Currently as mentioned earlier all toilets in this country not just the atrocious pit latrines are contributing to water pollution because of a lack of application of mind to the problem which is being masked by a penchant for false publicity. And the international agencies are complicit in this black comedy.

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