Shifting Gears From Infrastructure Building To Sustainability

While building a toilet may not be an expensive proposition and the sanitary function it performs is unquestionable, the shortage of toilets in India was appalling for the longest period of time. It took India seven decades after independence to achieve ODF status. After lagging behind all its South Asian neighbors, our country has now finally made it to the ODF status. On 2nd October 2019, the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared India Open Defecation Free as he addressed a congregation of 20,000 representatives by the banks of Sabarmati River, calling the Swachh Bharat Mission a shining example of transformative development and participatory approach.

Dubbed the largest program of its kind in the world, Swachh Bharat Mission has been a huge leap for the country. While we may be patting our backs for this feat, this is not a time to rest on our laurels. This is only the first phase, and it is going to be a test of time before our country performs well on the WASH (Water Sanitation and Hygiene) index. This includes the availability of water, water treatment, management of waste from the pits and wastewater treatment along with usage of toilets. Massive amounts of money have been spent on SBM and sustaining it is crucial for public health.

Adhering to 2030 Global Sustainable Development Agenda and SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) mandated by the UN, the second phase of SBM needs to focus on ‘safely managed sanitation’, which means that human waste is safely treated at some off-site facility or disposed of in situ. There should be no human contact in the process and the waste must not be discharged into the environment. This keeps pathogens away from the environment and protects us from diseases. Untreated waste, when released into the environment, contaminates water supply and the food chain and causes life-threatening diseases. Many parts of India are already staring at a crippling water crisis and poor management of waste only worsens the situation.

A recent National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey (NARSS) study states that 93.1% households in rural Indian households have access to toilets and 96.5% of these toilets are used regularly. Over 9.5 crore toilets have been built under SBM but they need to be constantly functional, and regularly used and safe disposal of waste ensured to sustain the ODF status. The NARSS report also states that 34% of toilets in India have septic tanks and soak pits and 30% are twin leach pit toilets.

On 27th Sep 2019, a 10-year national rural sanitation strategy was announced by Union Jal Shakti Ministry’s Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation (DDWS) to help sustain the 100% ODF status. The focus will be on managing plastic waste, organic waste, grey water, and faecal sludge in rural areas along with upgrading single pit toilets to twin pit ones, construction of soak pits for those septic tanks that don’t have them, and repair of defunct toilets. Union Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat said the country will now move ahead towards becoming ODF plus, but the health outcomes of this plan will be visible only when sanitation and hygiene are given the attention they deserve.

Building toilets is way easier than managing the tonnes of solid and liquid waste that will be generated in these toilets. Safe disposal and reuse of excreta are critical to avoid contamination of water resources and soil and health issues that arise out of contaminated water and soil and by pathogens on untreated waste. Only toilets made with the twin leach pit system have a self-compost method to handle waste, without needing any periodical cleaning or waste disposal. Those with single pits or septic tanks need periodic cleaning and safe disposal of faecal sludge produced in these toilets is an absolute must, and a huge challenge too. Lack of water, poor terrain are some of the challenges faced in rural areas, while again, lack of water, paucity of space and waste management (which has been the reason for the death of several sanitation workers too) are urban challenges. Proper maintenance of septic tanks and better in situ treatment of faecal matter is critical to avoid catastrophic health problems in the future.

As of now, Indians collectively generate more than 150,000 tonnes of waste already and less than 30% of it is treated. The sanitation narrative of India has gaps like faecal sludge management, wastewater treatment and waste management that need to be addressed in a well-structured and planned manner. Otherwise the SBM assets would not serve their purpose, and might even go defunct with time. India’s ODF trajectory can move to ODF+ and then ODF++ only with improved methods and plans, and natural alternatives which promote healthy waste management. Those who work in the sanitation sector need to be sensitised towards the impact their work has on society – better health leads to a better economy. Only a practical and smart combination of better technology and safe protocols for sanitation will make India’s ODF drive truly successful.

Making sanitation a priority has its own benefits. It can also be a significant source of revenue in the country’s economy. Innovations in products and services that enhance sustainability and create better ways to utilise toilet resources (energy from waste, recovering nutrients, fertilisers etc) will create more employment opportunities too. The India sanitation sector is estimated to be worth $62 billion annually by 2021. Developing technologies for better waste management will also lead to a great deal of research and development opportunities. Besides, the underlying benefits of better health and a better quality of life are also undeniably noteworthy.

Along with building good infrastructure, it is important to maintain it. That requires a strong sanitation force and natural products that are not harmful to the environment or human life. One such product is Bioclean Septic, a natural microbial septic tank treatment that efficiently degrades faecal matter. Immune to harsh climatic conditions, the microbes in Bioclean Septic decompose sludge and minimize sludge build-up, eliminating the chance of any choke up in the future. They also arrest the growth of putrefying pathogens and leave no room for foul odours. Bioclean Septic also eliminates any possibility of backflow or overflow as it decomposes all organic blockages in leach pits and surrounding stone walls. It is also 100% natural and a safe and effective product to keep toilets functioning well. Bioclean Septic Plus is another natural, microbial formulation that breaks down faecal matter as well as food waste in septic tanks, eliminating any chance of choking, foul smells or pathogen breeding. It cuts down the number of pump-outs needed for the septic tank, making septic tank maintenance simple and economical. Bioclean BD is a biodigestor tank treatment product that has high enzyme producing bacteria to completely degrade faecal matter. And Bioclean Biotoilets, made of Unplasticised Poly Viny Chloride, are sturdy, easy to install and maintenance free. Fire retardant with a Class 1 rating, they are resistant to chemicals and corrosion and are a better alternative to cement and pit toilets.

All of these products are capable of enhancing the sustainability quotient of India’s ODF achievement. The demand of the hour is to move focus towards sustainability and these products are just what you need for the purpose.