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To let toilets turn the tide?

Gobar Times

The nation went into a frantic frenzy when the then Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi stressed the need to build toilets before temples. Heard the latest attention-grabbing-headline? Chennai will soon have 348 'she toilets’. What is that exactly? Here, a GT special on sanitation that will answer your questions. More importantly, prod you to ask a few more.

What happens when the state of Tamil Nadu decides to address the long-pending problem of female hygiene and sanitation? Its corporation announces the launch of special ‘she toilets'. Please note, these are also being touted as the city’s first e-toilets (electronic, fully automated toilets if you please), planned to be operational by the year end. The 348 locations include bus stands, markets and open spaces. Special features include automatic flushes and GPRS-enabled, anti-vandalism infrastructure. Currently, Chennai has a little over 900 public toilets, inadequate for its 65 lakh population. Can the new numbers crunch the sanitation curse?

Well, before we begin to answer these questions, let us take a step back and look at the sanitation situation we as a nation are staring at. Up for a quick test?

Alright then, first thing first. It is important for you to understand the water-waste connection.

Did you know that 80 per cent of the water that reaches households leaves as waste?

Importantly, whom does the waste water reach? Whose excreta are conveyed via sewerage lines to fall into rivers, so polluting them? And whose sewage is conveyed to the treatment plants?

Let us go on an Excreta Journey to help you understand the connect.

Here, we break it down for you.

  1. The journey of excreta begins with humans, who generate it
  2. The next stage is that it must be ‘collected’. This is where the toilet comes in.
  3. Then, it must be disposed of, or conveyed away, and ‘treated’.

True or False
  • The government says over 90 per cent urban Indians have access to safe drinking water and 64 per cent have sanitation facilities, the two most basic of basic services. FALSE
  • The urban population in India will grow from 290 million people in 2001 through 340 million currently to 600 million in 2030. TRUE
  • By 2013, an estimated 40 per cent of the country’s population will live in cities. Five large states of India – Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Punjab – will have over 50 per cent of its people living in cities. TRUE
  • India already has some 42 metropolitan cities (cities with over 1 million people). This number is expected to increase to 68 by 2030.

You see, various Indian cities have various disposal ‘systems’ in place. Some houses have individual septic systems – soak pits and tanks that store the waste. The waste from these houses is disposed off in drains. These drains could be open or closedm. A ‘system of excreta disposal’, however, should not be confused with the type of ‘toilet’ people use. The toilet in the house or outside can be connected to a septic tank, or a drain which is open or closed and which is connected or unconnected to a sewage treatment plant.

How much sewage is generated in India?

Frankly, nobody really knows. There is no agency which measures sewage. There is no way of really estimating a city’s sewage load, because of the different ways in which people source water and the different ways in which people dispose sewage.

However, there are two ways of measuring sewage generated in cities:

  1. There’s a ‘rule of thumb’ technique. We already told you 80 per cent of the water supplied returns as sewage. This is how most city municipalities estimate sewage generation. The problem? Households do not only depend on water supplied by municipalities or water utilities. Remember, there is also groundwater or water sourced through tankers? Regardless of the source of supply, all water is discharged as sewage. And what about all the water lost in transmission?
  2. Sewage is actually measured, ideally, at the household level or at the colony level. Failing this, it is measured at outfalls — at the point where every drain leaves a town or when a drain discharges into a water body. But not a single municipality is known to use this method to calculate sewage volume.


Four issues need to be considered when we try and understand the sewage economy of our cities.

  1. What is the estimate of the waste generated and the capacity to convey the sewage to treatment plants?
  2. What is the infrastructure to treat and clean the sewage?
  3. Once the sewage treatment plant is built, is it effective in controlling pollution? Can it reduce water stress by promoting reuse?
  4. What is the economics of building and operating these plants and is this approach affordable for all in our cities? Conversely, if it is not affordable to all, will the approach work to clean rivers and water bodies?


But for now, the myth that it is the poor that pollute waterways is busted. Poor people, though large in number, use less water and so discharge less sewage. It is this inequity that must be understood.

In the political economy of defecation, cities have huge inequity in the use of water; they also have huge inequity in the disposal of excreta. The most glaring is within slums or within unauthorised settlements. In May 2008, the Union ministry of urban development put together an urban sanitation policy and vision 2015, which said it would correct the presently existing situation that

  • One out of six urban Indians is forced to defecate in the open every day
  • 26-50 per cent urban households suffer inadequate access to sanitation facilities
  • Only 30 per cent of urban households have access to sewerage systems
  • 37 per cent of all wastewater generated is let out into the environment untreated

The policy said untreated sewage caused 60 per cent of the water pollution in the country and this had to be addressed. It was because of this untreated sewage, pre-eminently, that water was polluted.

With new developments such as Chennai’s ‘She Toilets’, are we getting closer to the solution? Or are we simply flushing the problems away?

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To let toilets turn the tide?