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The crow and the broom:Progress on sanitation in the South

However, after this surge, it is proving difficult to traverse ‘the last mile’ – mainly tribal hamlets in remote, inaccessible places and coastal and waterlogged areas. It was an historic victory when municipal unions agitated and barred the abhorrent practice of manual scavenging in the state. In Mumbai, by contrast, municipal workers are often overcome by fumes when they descend into sewers to clean them. This is a blatant human rights violation. In Bangalore, around five years ago, The Indian Express reported how young workers had to drink themselves into virtual oblivion before stepping down into this present-day version of Hades.

Remarkably, in sharp contrast to the rest of India, Kerala’s coverage of rural and urban areas is almost equal, according to 2005 figures. This is largely due to the ‘rurban’ nature of Kerala’s development, particularly along the densely populated coast where town and village merge into each other seamlessly. Some 74% of schools are also covered, which makes a great difference to attendance. Elsewhere in India, the presence of toilets in schools has meant that children – especially girls reaching puberty – want to go to school, and miss it over weekends when they have to join their parents defecating out in the open.

Kerala has made greater strides than other states in implementing the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments and strengthening panchayati raj. A well-designed document titled Malinya Mukta Keralam, or Waste-Free Kerala, was published by the local self-government department of the state last year. The campaign’s imaginative logo is a crow holding a jhadoo (broom) in its beak, which is as indigenous a symbol as could possibly be. Each gram panchayat covers around 25sq. km and has a population of 25,000. Quite rightly, the campaign sees the riddance of human and solid waste as both an obligation and a right of the people.

Officials believe that a key area is what development professionals term IEC – short for information, education and communication. They are building on the huge head-start provided since the 1960s by the library movement, where educated professionals helped spread the reading habit to the remotest corners of the state. This was followed by the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishat, or KSSP, literally Science Literature Federation, where teachers and scientists went about translating scientific work into Malayalam and propagating it through a range of innovative methods. It was KSSP which, in the early-1970s, launched the successful battle to save Silent Valley from being swamped by a hydroelectric plant. One of Malinya Mukta’s campaigns is to publish grama pathrams or village newsletters. There are also kala jathas, or art processions, and environment and health drives.

In Kerala, thanks to the grassroots work done by the CPM and other progressive movements, panchayati raj has been very strong. The state has even conducted its own participatory resource mapping at the village level, which is the prerequisite for any dynamic transformation in the countryside. The cleanliness campaign has a strong parallel with the literacy movement for which Kerala is famous throughout the world. The power of the community galvanising itself to spread a social message can never be underestimated: the simple fact is that, unlike outside experts or officials descending on a village to tell people what to do, in such cases it is your friendly next-door neighbour who gets into the act.

The experience throughout Kerala – it isn’t absolutely clear whether this is true of the entire Indian countryside – is that individual toilets work better than community ones. Since many people own small homes with their adjoining land, however tiny, they are socialised to dispose of excreta in septic tanks. This has probably to do with the seminal fact that using a toilet isn’t just a matter of engineering but has everything to do with one’s dignity. One has only to recall how Dr Bindeshwar Pathak began his now-world-renowned Sulabh toilets, starting with Patna, in the 1970s. Everyone scoffed at him, questioning who in that poverty-stricken city would be prepared to pay – even the modest sum of 50 paise – for a daily ablution that could be performed free of charge anywhere. From the very first day there were queues outside the pay-toilet block (women and children were then not charged).

However, the reliance on individual toilets, like some other social amenities, has not come without a price. Sanitation experts in Kerala observe that behaviour in many respects, at the community level, has declined, whether it be maintenance of roads, water quality in ponds, and so on. This is a well-known phenomenon in cities like Mumbai where a BMW-owner will not think twice before rolling down his window to spit, throw out a wrapper or even a cigarette butt. Private affluence co-exists with public squalor.

Kerala, along with other forward-looking southern states, has designed special toilets for schoolgirls. In Tamil Nadu, some schools have even installed incinerators in toilet blocks. When questioned about the environmental hazards of burning such refuse, officials point out that the sanitary napkins that poor students use are cottage products made entirely out of coarse cloth. At the Chennai conclave, they showed slides of dispensing machines at village schools in Tamil Nadu where such napkins were sold for 2 a progressive social practice that would be unimaginable north of the Vindhyas. Some malls in Mumbai are resisting the installation of condom-vending machines.

In many states, the realisation is gradually dawning that sanitation must be seen as an integral part of dealing with all solid waste, in which plastic is probably the biggest offender. Some panchayats in these states have actually banned the use of plastic because they realise that plastic bags clog water bodies and irrigation channels. In Kerala, officials emphasise how the failure to tackle solid waste in urban areas in the past has led to the outbreak of epidemics like chikungunya. On such occasions, this had a disastrous impact on one of Kerala’s main revenue-earners – tourism – and has led to the conviction that sanitation has much to do with development. Tourism in Sri Lanka, which resembles Kerala in many ways, has benefited from such epidemics in its ‘neighbouring state’.

In many southern states, where the strengthening of panchayati raj institutions has proceeded apace, there is a demand to include the construction of community toilets as part of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) – at the very least, the construction of pits for which the NREG Act will have to be amended. Banks have also started providing loans for toilets, and there is an almost universal recognition that subsidies don’t work at the individual level; they only lead to distortions in the system.

Tamil Nadu has energised its self-help groups, mainly consisting of women. The state’s IEC campaign is very vigorous, comprising street corner meetings and plays, oratory competitions, celebrating festivals like Pongal, art shows and visits to successful panchayats. Children are taught hygiene, which is an integral part of sanitation. Washing hands after defecation and before eating meals can literally save thousands of lives. (In Karnataka, where there isn’t water in village schools, they use ‘Tippy Taps’ – large plastic containers which are hung from trees and can be tipped to wash hands using a minimal amount of water.)

There are now more than 5,000 such self-help groups in every district of Tamil Nadu. As much as 68% of individual homes throughout the state have a toilet. Nearly nine out of every 10 schools have been covered. Last year, 1,960 village panchayats and 11 block panchayats won Nirmal Gram Puruskars. Tamil Nadu has also forged strong partnerships with schools, NGOs, corporations and multilateral organisations like Unicef. All panchayats have at least one ‘girl-friendly’ toilet. There are toilet parks in some 30 districts, where all models of toilets are displayed. As many as 31 categories of solid waste are sorted out and recycled. Waste plastic is ground into powder and used to lay roads.

At the same time, there is a demand for better constructed toilets. Experts in sanitation like Joe Madiath of the NGO Gram Vikas in Orissa that has won a $1 million award for its initiatives in sanitation, have repeatedly pointed to the anomaly under which government officials believe that the rural poor can make do with makeshift, cheap toilets. Drainage remains extremely poor. In schools, children need to be trained to clean and maintain their toilets, which will otherwise fall into disuse after two or three years.

An area that remains at the experimental and, to some extent, publicity-seeking stage is eco-toilets. In a few demonstration projects in Karnataka, excreta is processed into vermicompost and used as manure. It can also be used in biogas plants, along with kitchen waste, which takes care of the two most troublesome forms of solid waste. In a few cases, urine is collected and used as fertiliser: most people are unaware that urine contains nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, or NPK, the main plant nutrients, which is why ‘urea’ derives from the same root. As in most facets of dealing with sanitation, it’s people’s attitudes that have to change rather than bureaucratic indifference or paucity of funds. This is where decentralised government agencies and people’s initiatives come into play.

Protagonists of eco-sanitation all over the world firmly believe that by separating urine and excreta, both can be re-used. Faeces, if exposed to the atmosphere, is rendered harmless – except, ironically enough, for toxins in medicines that people take, which are often non-biodegradable. In fact, the centuries-old engineering of sewage systems employs water that is already made potable to carry minute amounts of solid and liquid waste, increasing the volume several-fold, and then finding increasingly difficult and expensive ways of disposing of this waste. This critique doesn’t even address the huge injustice of the majority in many cities like Mumbai, who are homeless, subsidising the sewage treatment of the minority with flush systems. Swedish and German experts have shown that even in a high-rise apartment building it is possible to install such a system, with the waste being collected separately and carried to nearby biogas plants or farms. As things are, however, eco-sanitation is a distant dream in every country.

Darryl D’Monte
(InfoChange News & Features)

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