Gandhian Sanitation: Flood-prone Sahibganj uses height and bacteria to manage its waste

Flood-prone blocks of Sahibganj in Jharkhand use biodigester toilets; these comprise a series of concrete tanks that contain sheets with an irregular surface on which bacterial colonies are embedded and multiply

By Sushmita Sengupta, Swati Bhatia
Published: Saturday 01 October 2022

On October 2, 2022, India marks the 153rd birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. As is well known, Gandhiji always laid emphasis on cleanliness and sanitation.

“Unless we rid ourselves of our dirty habits and have improved latrines, Swaraj can have no value for us,” he had stated. “Sanitation is more important than independence,” he had added on another occasion. Gandhiji focussed on cleanliness and sanitation whether in South Africa or in India.

Down To Earth pays homage to the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi regarding cleanliness by profiling villages and districts across India where people have worked to radically improve their lot through better solutions for drinking water and sanitation.

Sahibganj, Rajmahal, Udhwa and Barharwa blocks in Sahibganj district of Jharkhand lie in the Gangetic plains. The villages face frequent floods during the rainy season. Shallow groundwater leads to waterlogging in these blocks. Villages in these blocks remain under water for at least four months in a year.

These blocks initially implemented single-pit toilets. Village residents would open the lid of the pit during heavy rains and floods, resulting in washing away of faecal sludge along with the rainwater. The toilets could be used during floods. The villagers used a raised wooden platform to defecate. This was unsanitary as faeces was directly discharged into the open.

The change

In 2016-17, the district and state Swachh Bharat Mission team started visiting the villages to understand the issues related to the pit toilets in high-flood zones and also come to a solution. They conducted awareness programmes and activities to involve communities. In the beginning it was difficult to convince the villagers to retrofit the existing pit.

Based on the discussion between the local community and technical experts from the Swachh Bharat Mission team, district officials developed raised twin pits, retrofitting single pits so that they sustained during floods.

Twin leach pits are made 1.5–2 metre above the ground level in Sahibganj district (Swati Bhatia, CSE)

For example, houses in villages of Udhwa block are made on raised platforms so that they are at least 1.5-2 metres above the ground level.

This ensures that households are not uprooted during floods and they can continue to have access to raised twin pit toilets even during floods. The twin pits are also 1.5-2 metres above the ground and are given a soil envelope to allow percolation of water in the enveloping soil.

The state has an active 11-membered Village Water and Sanitation Committee (VWSC) headed by an official from the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs). The committee has a permanent paid post called jal sahiyas, who are in most cases women.

Jal sahiyas act as treasurers of the committee and also ensure that each household is educated and aware about managing the grey water and safe sanitation. They go from door to door to interact with communities in villages. Jal sahiyas function in conjuction with district and Gram Panchayats.

The district has also developed in the villages women self-help groups (SHGs) that are responsible to convince people to make toilets.

SHG group members are given an incentive amount of Rs 75 per toilet constructed. The retrofitting drive was possible in high-flood zones of blocks in which state and block officers were personally involved in the development of villages.

Operation and maintenance

The toilets are maintained and cleaned by individual households. After every three to five years, one of the pits is blocked and faecal sludge from the toilet flows to the second pit.

By the time the second pit is filled up, the sludge in the first pit gets decomposed. The communities empty the decomposed soil themselves and use them in their fields as fertiliser.

Flood-prone areas find a solution for safe management of faecal sludge through biodigester toilets

Both Sahibganj district of Jharkhand and Durg district of Chhattisgarh have flood-prone blocks where leach pit toilets become non-functional during heavy showers and when the areas go underwater for long periods of time. Shallow groundwater level also makes digestion of sludge in twin leach pits difficult.

These districts have thus adopted biodigester toilets. Biodigester technology was developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) for high altitudes where the rate of degradation of faecal matter is slow due to low temperatures.

The technology comprises several bacterial species that degrade faecal sludge and can survive at temperatures up to 50°C. Biodigester toilets comprise a series of concrete tanks that contain sheets with an irregular surface on which bacterial colonies are embedded and multiply. Faecal sludge comes in contact with the sheets.

Household-level biodigester under construction in Durg, Chhattisgarh (WaterAid, India)

Faecal matter is composed of carbohydrates, protein and fats. It is first converted into simple sugars, amino acids and fatty acids. Then it breaks down to form carbonic acid, alcohols, hydrogen and water, forming acetic acid, hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Eventually, methane, carbon dioxide and water are formed.

The tank has several chambers to provide more surface area to hasten the biodegradation. The cost of a household-level system is approximately Rs 15,000-18,000 with minimal maintenance.

Since Jharkhand is flood-prone, the district has developed 14 biodigester community toilets. In Durg, Chhattisgarh, biodigester toilets are being developed on a model basis where the faulty septic tanks are in the process of being retrofitted by adding biodigester tanks to the septic tank.

This technology reduces the need for further treatment of faecal sludge and treated water is disposed of using a soak pit at the outlet of the biodigester tanks.

Key points

  • Flood-prone blocks of Sahibganj have built raised houses. They have developed twin pits at a similar height of 1.5-2 metre above ground level and provided a thick soil envelope to ensure proper absorption of water in soil.
  • Biodigester toilets comprise a series of tanks connected through pipes. These tanks are fitted with sheets that acts as an anchor for bacterial growth, providing it with a bigger surface area.
  • The bacterial species degrade faecal matter to methane and carbon dioxide, reducing the need to manage the faecal waste.

Ruksar, resident of Sahibganj gram panchayatWe have recently emptied one of the twin pits and dumped the contents into our fields to be used as fertiliser. The other pit is now in operation. We are happy as we now get to use toilets even during floods. My entire family uses toilets and we do not need to go out any longer. We have no difficulty in emptying the pit. My husband used a shovel to dig out the dried sludge. It was black like soil and had no smell.

—Ruksar, resident of Sahibganj Gram Panchayat

This is a part of Water Compendium published by the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi

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