Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set October 2, 2019 as the target date for rural India to be Open Defecation Free (ODF). Remarkable progress has been achieved, but there is still a very long way to go. In rural north India, at least half the toilets that are functioning are not used by all members of the household all the time. Often, the toilet is used sparingly, to delay it filling and to postpone all the costs and pollution entailed in getting it emptied.
The solution widely favoured by rural people is to construct a septic tank, a large, sealed underground chamber, the larger the better. On recent field visits to Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, we found many examples of this, with costs of the tanks ranging from Rs 20,000 to Rs 70,000. This is too expensive for many poor people. Septic tanks are the aspiration, which deflects attention from cheaper, better, more sustainable solutions; masons also recommend septic tanks because they can make more money from construction.
The government recommendation is the much smaller and cheaper twin pit. This has two leach pits, with a ‘Y’ junction, so that one pit can be filled at a time. The practice is to fill one, which may take the average family five to eight years, cover it over when nearly full, and leave it to stand while the second pit is used. After about a year, the contents of the first pit have turned into harmless— and valuable — fertiliser: A family’s waste turns from being a liability in a septic tank to a growing asset. Each visit to the loo is an investment; the more it is used, the quicker will be the return. The pit can be emptied safely and its contents used or sold.
But we found people with twin pits paying masons to build septic tanks for them. A mason in a village in Raipur district told us that he had replaced over a hundred twin pits with septic tanks. In general, it seems people do not know about, or do not believe in, the advantages of twin pits over septic tanks. We may be wrong, but information about twin pits does not seem to have been a major part of Information, Education, Communication (IEC) campaigns. People see twin pits as too small and too quick to fill. They use them sparingly. We were struck by the almost universal ignorance of rural people on these points.
There was a major breakthrough a few weeks ago: Led by Parameshwaran Iyer, the secretary in charge of the Swachh Bharat Mission, principal secretaries from almost all states set a splendid example by themselves getting down into pits, digging out fertiliser and being photographed handling it. They overcame the belief that it was polluting, finding the contents of the pits to be dry, crumbly and totally lacking in smell, a fertiliser some compared to coffee powder. They returned to their states armed with the authority of personal experience, and a small jar of the fertiliser to prove the point.
The next day, we joined the CEO of Raipur district in Chhattisgarh, Nileshkumar Kshirsagar, and some of his staff, in digging out fertiliser from more pits. One pit had been abandoned because there were so many users, the family feared it would fill up too fast. The owner had built a septic tank instead, for Rs 70,000. When we gave him Rs 300 — we hope it was a fair price — for the fertiliser we had dug out from his old pit and were taking with us, he seemed bemused, perhaps because he had made a huge investment in a liability that he would eventually have to spend more money on to empty, when, for a fraction of the cost, his large family could have been saving for the future every time they went to the loo.
Can understanding about twin pits and fertiliser solve the problem of partial usage? Not at once. But if the principal secretaries inspire their staff to empty pits, and if this filters down the hierarchy to field workers, perhaps this could become transformative, and support efforts in changing norms and practices. The transformative shift is from the lose-lose-lose of a septic tank — costly to build, nasty, expensive to empty, and used only partially — to the win-win-win of twin pits — cheaper to build, harmless, easy for owners themselves to dig out, and with a valuable product, giving an incentive for use by everyone all the time, with every deposit an investment in future fertiliser.
Can political and spiritual leaders now set an example? What an opportunity this is, for this could be a big push towards an ODF India. Will they rise to the challenge and show that the pits bring profit, not pollution? This is no small issue. Time is running out. Their urgent action could be decisive. We watch with hope.