Rural Water and Sanitation

Niligiris' journey to being ODF led to it embracing organic farming

The hill district witnesses a successful example of closing the nutrient loop in a sustainable way

By Rashmi Verma
Published: Friday 20 September 2019
Piling co-compost at the Ketti resource management centre in the Nilgiris district. Photograph: Vikas Choudhary

When the hill district of Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu finally became open-defecation free in 2018 after years of constant effort, the residents of what used to be a laggard district celebrated the accomplishment with double the amount of zeal.

The extra dose of happiness was the result of a byproduct that is helping the primary occupation of the inhabitants of Nilgiris — which, like all across the country barring the cities, is agriculture. Nilgiris is known for its tea and coffee plantations and its traditional agricultural practices have died.

“The traditional agricultural practices have dwindled with the introduction of tea and other mono-crops (carrots, beetroot and potato) and the use of chemicals has increased exponentially,” says Madhavan, a 67-year-old farm owner. The district’s rural population is the worst affected by the excessive use of chemical fertilisers.

“Eight months of water crisis every year and high cost of chemical fertilisers are the two major setbacks for my farm production,” says 45-year-old Sundermurty, a vegetable grower at Keelkowatty village.

The need was a sustainable replacement for chemical fertilisers and the abundant resource was faecal sludge. The transformation of Nilgiris began much before the Swachh Bharat Mission’s push towards total sanitation.

“Around 72 per cent of the households had no access to toilets in 2009,” says Sampath Rajkumar, executive director of the Nilgiris-based non-profit Rural Development Organisation (RDO) Trust. “We work extensively with the rural population and help them understand the importance of sanitation,” says Rajkumar.

“To support the cause, more than 0.1 million rural women were brought under self-help groups (SHGs). We handheld the SHGs to run professionally and the training helped them to qualify for loans and raise Rs 200 crore for toilet construction,” Rajkumar adds.

Most of the toilets are single pit and the septic tanks are not optimally designed. The faecal sludge from the toilets was mostly dumped into the forest areas by honeysuckers — big trucks with a tank and a pump that is designed to pneumatically suck septage into the tank.

“With the plan to resolve this issue, we started our project—Securing Water for Food. We created facilities for the treatment of faecal sludge at Ketti and Adigratti town panchayats. The technical support was provided by German non-profit BORDA and the Dutch non-profit WASTE,” adds Rajkumar. The commissioned Faecal Sludge Treatment Plants (FSTPs) produce dry sludge which is mixed with organic waste for the production of co-compost.

“Ketti resource management centre collects the solid waste from 22 villages and three trucks of faecal sludge weekly. The FSTP capacity at Ketti is 1,700 kilo litre per day (KLD). Adigratti resource management centre collects solid waste from 46 villages and five trucks of faecal sludge weekly and the total treatment capacity of the FSTP is 5,000 KLD,” says Wilson, a researcher working with RDO Trust.

In both the FSTPs, the raw faecal sludge is put into a series of gravel beds where the solid component dries up at the top and the liquid (wastewater) filters down and collects into the soak pit. The dried solid is further processed with organic waste material to form the co-compost. The co-compost has an 80:20 ratio of organic waste and dried solid.

The whole process takes a month’s time. To ensure the quality of the treatment process and the ready co-compost, continuous analytical tests are conducted at the government laboratory at Chennai. The cost of ready co-compost is Rs 5 per kg and now each centre is producing one tonne of co-compost per day. Even this is not enough to meet the increasing demand due to the positive effect of co-compost on vegetable growth and soil productivity.

Knowing the fact that the co-compost contains human excreta, farmers were initially reluctant to use it. The RDO Trust built confidence among farmers, educated them and made them understand its importance and efficiency.

“Two years ago we needed around 10 bags of chemical fertilisers in our 0.04 hectare (ha) land. The economic burden was huge. Also, the produce was not up to the mark. Last year, we switched to co-compost and used it along with mushroom waste. And this year we got a very good yield of beetroot, cabbage and exotic vegetables such as lettuce and broccoli,” says 50-year-old farmer Madhu Rani. “Although there is not much difference in the quantity of the produce but the quality we get is extremely good.

Seeing the size of beetroots and carrots, vendors buy our produce without negotiating. Now we will never go back to chemicals,” Rani adds. Farmers in Nilgiris are now more welcoming to options that integrate co-compost with mushroom and chicken waste. However, the demand is high and requires more such facilities in the district.

“When compared to the cost of chemical fertilisers (R40 per kg), the co-compost is a more economical alternative. The total expenditure of co-compost for 0.40 ha (1 acre) of land comes around Rs 30,000 including the transportation cost. This is almost half the cost of chemical fertilisers.

The reduction in pesticide cost is an additional benefit for farmers using co-compost. We are trying to evolve a business around the co-compost. The idea is to involve women in the process and make them compost entrepreneurs,” Rajkumar says. The Nilgiris has witnessed a successful example of closing the nutrient loop in a sustainable way.

(This article was first published in Down To Earth's print edition dated September 16-30, 2019)

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