Civil engineering for a social planet

A technology worth a try...

Published: Friday 15 January 2010

THE Delhi chief minister has already conceded that a scheme to save the Yamuna from untreated sewage will not be completed in time for the Commonwealth Games in 2010. A clutch of companies have claimed they can help Delhi meet the deadline. They are asking for a fair chance.

The tonic they offer is a concoction of microbes that feast on organic matter in sewage, doing in weeks what nature would in decades. The process, called bioremediation, has been used in Europe and North America since the 1970s. Anticipating a market in India, several Canadian and American companies have started operations. Each company has a patented combination. Although risk-taking is inimical to the government, several officials allowed small experiments; companies offered the services free. The Centre has not sanctioned the technology yet. Mandarins claim it is unproven; its potential is limited, at best.

The same government has invested billions of rupees over years to clean lakes and rivers—the waterbodies are still polluted, some are actually worse off. In these programmes, the government engineers used technologies that are proven in the West. Then what explains their failure in India? Could it be that the Indian technocratic class is a proven failure? Is India better off with such brain draining to the West, leaving room for some fresh thought?

Whether bioremediation works or not will depend on giving it a fair trial—and not just to disprove it. If it fails, it is no worse than the civil engineering-dominated approach of today.

That it is companies pushing this technology should make it easier. Companies are intimately aware of how to grease the government machinery to make it deliver approvals. This could also mean that in their hurry to profit, the companies might take the short view. Bioremediation relies on the natural process of organic decay; it does not understand either the urge to profit or the inorganic chemistry of red tape.

For the sake of our waterbodies, the government must get off the fence on this one.

...and an official who tried

IN HER study of the artisans of Varanasi, sociologist Nita Kumar wrote, “Men often told me that one aspect of the friendliness of the city was that they could urinate wherever they liked.”

Such friendliness is only for the male half of the species. Public toilets are foreign to the age-old design of Indian cities and villages. Sociologists have shown how modern town planners have a decidedly male-centric mindset. So while men can take refuge behind a bush or a corner wall, women have to find a restaurant or a shopping store and use the facility pretending to be customer. This happens only in cities—its rich parts. Working class women can’t get into restaurants or shop toilets.

This is a critical limitation. Girls commonly avoid school because of the absence of toilets. Women of low-income families must wake up before dawn or wait until dark to defecate, exposing themselves to myriad indignities. It’s not as if the law is not sensitive. There is such a thing as the Interstate Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Condition of Service) Act, 1979. It mandates that separate toilets be provided at all places of work, including construction sites. But you would not see toilets at these sites; they are not financially feasible for the contractors who employ migrant workers.

It is in this light that the story of a public toilet in Vidarbha should be seen. The personal, sensitive nature of excretion renders it taboo. But women in Buldhana spoke out against a public toilet design. They performed their ablutions in a group and it had become a social ritual. The women did not wanted isolated blocks—just a wall to cover the portion of land used for defecation and short walls around the squatting area. The official concerned showed good sense and adapted the design to the demand. The result: community toilets for women that are used.


The engineering solutions the Indian State has offered over the past six decades have a techno-centric appr-oach. The solutions, though, often lie in understanding the social and the political. More often than not, the problem is not the inappropriateness of a technology. It is the intention of technocrats, and how poorly they know their job.

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