Published: Monday 15 April 2002

Toilet troubles

Though extremely relevant, your cover story 'Wishy washy?' (Down To Earth (dte), Vol 10, No 19, February 28) seemed slightly harsh on the 'rich' people. Even Uno Winblad, the Swedish architect mentioned in the cover story, would agree with my observations below:
Awareness on hygiene ought to be created at the primary school level itself.

Using water to 'carry' refuse is, in E F Schumacher's words spending the 'capital' rather than the 'interest'.

High density of septic tanks in a habitat makes aquifers susceptible to infiltration.

The 'political economy' of sewer systems has many more strings attached. Consider the following:

Technical/planning advice has no meaning, especially in the case of politically 'visible' issues.

Development authorities expand without treatment, processing facilities or resource mapping in place, thereby putting extreme pressure on the basic resource: safe water supplies.

Planning in India works on Bitton's postulate on electronics: The day you understand it, it becomes obsolete.

Low cost, innovative or appropriate are words that translate into 'cheap' for policymakers. The user's mindset, therefore, has to change.

Involving the community at the root level is the only visible solution, where volumes are seen fighting against time.

The rate we are going at today, the haves will soon be unable to purchase their favourite mineral water bottle at any cost...that is the price one will have to pay.


Inspired piece!

You hit the nail on the head when you say 'drowning in human excreta'. Human excreta, a possible resource, is fast becoming high liability. A new agriculture approach, involving research on a 'green toilet', is becoming imperative. The experiences of Brazil, Vietnam, Germany and 'eco san' toilets should lead us towards brainstorming as well. Sulabh International, which is doing excellent work, the ministry of environment, ministry of water resources and ministry of health should work towards forming a national consensus on the issue. My compliments, Sunita, to you, to the late Anil Agarwal, whom I have had the pleasure of knowing for the past 22 years, to cse and dte.


An alternative?

Your cover story on using water for disposal of faecal matter in the urban environment is, indeed, timely. May I point out, however, that the Western approach to this problem has focussed on reducing water usage and recycling the sewage, both of which are costly.

Our organisation, involved in residential housing in Chennai, realised the need for alternate technologies that are more appropriate to Indian conditions. We worked upon treatment and re-use of grey water (water used for bathing and washing clothes), which is free from pathogens, and constitutes 50 per cent of the total water usage. We have developed a simple natural soil treatment process for treating grey water within the limited area available in flat complexes. This system has been functioning satisfactorily for the last three years in several housing complexes. We have also had encouraging results with treatment of effluents from septic tanks. This method can be applied for treatment of sewage in towns and cities that have no sewage, thereby preventing contamination of ground water.


Taking note

The latest issue on sanitation was very useful. In Kanyakumari district, we have taken up a total sanitation campaign, a Rs four crore project of the government of India. But the thrust is the same: more flush toilets. We are now seriously considering some changes. Your article has been submitted to the project officer. Although it is not easy to effect major changes at this stage, we hope to make some changes. Here, we also have different problems, like rural people using dry ponds in summer as open latrines, and bathing in the same ponds in monsoon. Epidemiological data or water quality data is also not easily available here.

In Kerala, with its high water table, we have a serious crisis. In Thiruvananthapuram, they accumulate the sewage and open it out into the beautiful Karamana river. A sewage treatment system built a century back is still used. The treatment plant does not function anymore, and the meticulously collected sewage reaches the Parvati Puthanar, and from there flows to the Karamana, before reaching the sea. Thousands of poor people bathe in the Karamana, from whose shores many more drink well water polluted by the river. Perhaps we need local ecosystem-specific solutions in such areas.


Management techniques

This refers to your editorial 'Better wild than never' (Down To Earth, Vol 10, No 19, February 28). Wildlife sanctuaries are the last hope for India's dwindling wildlife population, threatened by encroachment and poachers. Peaceful coexistence of people and wildlife is rarely realised due to conflict of interests. This is why involving the local inhabitants of forests in wildlife management is important. Social forestry can provide the daily needs of the villagers, in terms of fuel, fodder and minor forest produce.


The wildlife club

I really believe you write with conviction and credibilty. I don't know who you refer to as the 'wildlife community', though. If you mean Maneka Gandhi, she's not a member of this club at all. Except the Bishnois and a couple of other communities, who protected wild animals? Our politicians? Maneka Gandhi? Non-governmental organisations (ngos)? I don't understand this rhetoric, and unfortunately, you too seem to join the party. There's a forest minister of Rajasthan, Bhag Raj Choudhary, who asks, "What's the need to protect the Desert National Park (dnp) for a few birds (i.e. godawan or the great Indian bustard)?" No dnp exists now. We know people like them exist, but it hurts when Sunita Narain joins the party.


A clarification

I would like to reply to Clarence Maloney's comments on my article 'Growing Fences' (Down To Earth, Vol 10, No 15, December 31). First, it is well known that archaeological evidence traces the ancestry of Homo sapiens in peninsular India to as far back as the Late Pleistocene, if not earlier. Bastar is no exception. While there are regional variations in the stone tool industries that have been found so far, fact remains that stone artefacts are widely distributed within the subcontinent and, in many areas, there is a long history of symbiotic relations between foragers and urban settlers. In fact, Bastar has for long attracted invaders and settlers from different parts of the country.

It was not within the scope of my short article to outline a past rooted in prehistory and the dynamic progress of social and economic interaction over the millennia, nor was it pertinent to mention that Dravidian dialects are well established south of the river Indravati, which flows through Bastar. Second, given the facts of prehistory, as are known today, it would be rather simplistic to assume that "people moved from Gujarat and Maharashtra eastward in the wake of the Indus valley civilisation". Third, environmental degradation and population pressure have been steadily depriving various groups in Bastar of resources that were earlier more easily accessible. This has inevitably led to restriction of movement and communication, which can be witnessed by anyone visiting this district. Fourth, whereas policies regarding welfare and education do exist, their implementation is mired in corruption and apathy, and unless something is done to stem this rot, the poor in our country continue to face a bleak future.


Blue revolution

In the past, green revolution was promoted as the mission that would save humanity. The reality is that it is 'blue revolution', the management of water resources, that can steer humanity towards food security and a green revolution. Growing population rate and diminishing soil fertility are indications of potential disaster. Advanced irrigation systems are, no doubt, signs of a superior civilisation.


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