Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Down the drain... Back again?

Did you hear about the contamination levels of waterfronts in Mumbai? It's worse than it used to be. The beaches are filthier. And what's more, much of the contamination is faecal matter. Yes, shit mostly.

Before you start blaming the hundreds of thousands of people who must squat on the beach – although there is that problem too – consider the facts. Mumbai generates 2677 litres of sewaage, every day. Of this, only 774 million litres is treated. The rest just goes into the sea.

Perhaps you have heard of men dying in sewers while trying to clear blockages. Sometimes, people die just breathing the noxious air around a manhole. There was a news report about the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation wanting to install a ventilating system over manhole covers, after three people died from the poisonous gases wafting up. There was another report about a seven-year-old boy dying after he fell into an open drain in Mehrauli, Delhi.

India has hundreds of open drains in each city, and there are hundreds of cities. It is high time we began to ask – how is it that we invest hundreds of billions in aircrafts, even space-craft, but are unwilling to find clean, efficient technologies to fix the overwhelming toilet and sewage problem?

How is it that we continue to flush our filth into rivers that form our drinking water supply? In Pradip Saha's documentary 'Faecal Attraction', a dual question is posed to the citizens of Delhi – where did they think their water comes from, and where does the shit go? 

Some respondents sheepishly admit that the answer to both is probably the river Yamuna. Others, including young and educated citizens, seem to think that once they flush the toilet, the sewers carry their shit to a mysterious location, a convenient 'somewhere else'. As the documentary shows, sewage usually flows into water bodies like rivers, lakes, or else, groundwater.

India generates 38,000 million litres of sewage a day. 35 major cities account for over 15 million litres. The government can treat only 12,000 million tonnes, about one-third of the total. The Central Pollution Control Board released a report called the ‘Status of sewage treatment in India’ a few years ago, which said that the problem was likely to magnify to unmanageable levels very quickly.

In one interview, Bindeshwar Pathak (founder of Sulabh Sauchalaya) was quoted as saying that, even if we halt the development of our cities, it would still take India 3000 years to lay safe sewer lines leading to centralised sewage treatment plants. Only 269 towns (out of 7000) have treatment plants. Experts suggest that a large part of the problem is that we depend heavily on the state, and the state itself banks on a centralized system of sewage treatment. Basically, this means that we are not responsible for our own shit.

I can't help wondering why we don't look to our glorious ancient culture when it comes to sanitation? Thousands of years ago, the Indus Valley civilization had invested in sewage systems. Humanity is as much about shitting as eating or procreating, after all.

Nobody likes to embrace shit, of course. But we simply can't go on if we let it flow into rivers and seas. There are other, better ways of treating sewage. The technology exists. And every cooperative housing society, every bunglow, every town ought to invest in it, just as we invest in security systems and water filters. We cannot eternally outsource the problem of sewage to the government. We need to start seeing it as part of our own struggle to build a decent life for ourselves.

First published here

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