Ten thousand bottles of human faecal matter — decomposed in toilet pits that were sealed six months to a year ago, sun-dried over the last seven days, sieved into a tea leaf-like consistency and packed into glass jars — have been sent by truck from Akola in Maharashtra to Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad.
On October 2, these 100-gram jars of completely organic manure high in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium content, and prepared with a sprinkling of seeds that will sprout upon watering, will be presented to guests at the celebration to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.
For the Maharashtra government, the Akola Zilla Parishad and UNICEF, which together undertook the project to empty toilet pits, collect and process the manure, the idea is to popularise the use of decomposed waste from the nearly 10 crore toilets built across the nation under Swachh Bharat.
The Maharashtra government has christened the manure Sona Khaad, alluding to a gold standard of sustainability — the toilet pits can be re-used only once they are emptied, and the decomposed waste simply goes back into the soil.
UNICEF Mumbai’s Water and Sanitation Hygiene specialist Yusuf Kabir, who has a teacup of Sona Khaad on his work table, had in 2017 initiated the delinking of caste and stigma from the emptying of toilet pits. “Secretary to the Government of India Param Iyer, who was then heading the Swachh Bharat Mission, emptied out a toilet pit in a village in Telangana. Later, Bollywood actors and others emptied toilet pits, to show that you do not even need safai workers to empty out the scientific twin pits, something not possible in a septic tank. The stigma associated with cleaning out the pits was removed,” Kabir told The Indian Express.
UNICEF Maharashtra, in fact, prepared a step-by-step protocol on emptying out twin pit toilets a couple of years ago. According to Kabir, giving guests at Sabarmati Ashram little jars of Sona Khaad demonstrates the closing of the loop of an ecological cycle, “returning to nature what is natural”.
Staffers at the Akola Zilla Parishad got to work on the project only on September 21, the request for the bottles of manure having arrived by mail the previous afternoon. “One big challenge was identifying toilets that had been built some time back, where a pit would have been sealed for about a year,” said Akola Zilla Parishad CEO Ayush Prasad.
There is no list of toilets with date of construction, and the officer eventually sent out a squad in a car. Equipped with shovels and other implements, the team found no suitable toilet over the first two days of scouting. Eventually, an octogenarian woman’s home that had a toilet built in 2014 yielded the desired result.
The team then began to set about looking for toilets built under previous government sanitation projects, including the Gadge Baba Gram Swachhata Abhiyaan and the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyaan of the UPA era. About 45 toilet pits were opened, but only 26 had manure while the others had waste that was still decomposing. Prasad says the team had to be particularly careful in selecting which pits to empty — emptying out a pit with waste that is not yet decomposed would amount to manual scavenging.
According to Jayant Deshpande, sanitation consultant with UNICEF, of the 10 crore toilets under SBM, at least about 6.5 crore are twin pit toilets. When used by an average Indian family, a pit gets filled up every six to seven years. Upon being sealed, faecal matter that comprises 80 per cent water undergoes anaerobic decomposition with the water draining out, each pit yielding on average 60 kg to 70 kg of manure. By that math, about 1 crore toilets may be available to be emptied every year, yielding in total about 60 lakh quintals of manure.
“In addition, the toilets themselves get some maintenance, and there is rural employment generated in emptying the pits and making the manure available,” Deshpande said.
For the October 2 function, the Akola ZP used an in-house IT engineer’s Clipart skills to design a label with a logo depicting the shape of the Indian squatting toilet and maize growing around the pit.
The label describes the process of making and using Sona Khaad. The glass jars, the kind used to pack ghee or pickle, were procured from Vadodara; packaging was designed locally with the ‘Maha Sona Khaad’ branding and the total project cost kept at approximately Rs 3 lakh — the manure was free, the main costs were the bottles, packaging and transportation.
A dilapidated complex in Akola was used to spread out the collected manure on mats where it was dried using fans and halogen lights as rains continued. In all, 10,240 jars were packed into cartons and despatched in a truck.
Prasad, who followed the Rabi 2018 experiments by the Directorate of Onion and Garlic research near Pune in which Sona Khaad was used on onion fields before transplanting, said that initial assessments showed higher presence of nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium (NPK) in the onions, as well as improved yield. “Mahasona Khaad is evidence of a cleaner India, achieved by millions of its poor citizens. It contains decomposed material that may have otherwise caused diarrhoea and killed millions of children. These bottles show that the value chain of sanitation is now complete,” he said.