What it takes to clean India

A village school in Madhya Pradesh deals with the micro-realities of the area and gets out of a sanitation crisis.
Sewage water filter assembly in the school
Sewage water filter assembly in the school

Sajan, a 14 year old Bhilala Adivasi boy studying in the Rani Kajal school in Kakrana in Alirajpur district of Madhya Pradesh says, "We now save a lot of time as we bathe in the bathrooms and defecate in the toilets rather than in the open fields; and so we study better". The school on the banks of the River Narmada run by the Kalpantar Shikshan Kendra, now has functional bathrooms and toilets which is an exception in this country as despite the hype around the Swachh Bharat campaign, the reality is that most schools are without functional toilets.

The biggest problem with making toilets functional--a fact that is generally brushed under the carpet--is water supply. Toilets are being built in the hundreds of thousands since the clarion call given by the Prime Minister on Independence Day 2014 but in most cases, there is either inadequate or no provision for water supply. Consequently, toilets across the country stink to the high heavens.

Toilet troubles at Rani Kajal school

The Rani Kajal school campus has a hand pump in which a two-phase submersible pump of one horsepower (HP) was inserted. There were only three toilets for the girls and women and none for the boys and men. So this year, fifteen pairs of toilets and bathrooms were constructed in two blocks of 10 and 5 for the boys and girls respectively. Initially after the toilets and bathrooms were constructed, they were fitted with two 1000 litre tanks in addition to the 1000 litre tank that was already there for the three toilets built earlier. These tanks were connected to the submersible pump.

However, this total of 3000 litres proved totally inadequate to service 15 bathrooms and 18 toilets. The tanks would empty out within a few minutes during the morning hours of heavy use and then filling them up again was a big problem. Later during the day, the tanks would remain empty and so the children would have to cart water in buckets from the handpump to the toilets over a distance of more than 100 metres. Given this water shortage, the toilets began to stink and became a potential health hazard much like the toilets being built elsewhere. To rectify the situation it was decided to build a 10,000 litre concrete tank on top of the highest hillock in the campus so as to provide enough water storage for the present and future needs of the school at all points.

Ensuring water supply to the toilets

This then brought up a new problem of how to fill this tank with water. The one HP submersible pump could deliver water at a very slow rate to this tank which was at a height of about 20 metres above the hand pump. Matters were compounded by the fact that the voltage of the electricity supply was low and often fell to 160 volts or so instead of the standard 240. Ideally, the Madhya Pradesh State Electricity Board should be providing 240 volt three phase AC supply to rural areas so that farmers can run pumps of 3 HP and upwards for irrigation purposes. However, the reality in most remote areas of the state is that the supply is in two phases of low voltage of about 160 volts, with the third phase remaining even less at 20 to 30 volts and effectively non-functional for running pumps. That is why throughout rural areas in the state, two phase capacitor driven 1 or 2 HP pumps have become popular. However, given the low voltage there is a limit to the head up to which these pumps can raise water. The submersible pump of 1 HP took eight hours to fill up the hill top tank and often when the voltage became very low it would stop pumping altogether.

To solve this problem it was decided to lift water from an open well in the campus which was being used only for irrigating the two vegetable farms. The submersible pump in the hand pump was to be used henceforth only for drinking water purposes.

Toilet complex of the boys hostel

Waste water runs amok

The bigger problem was regarding the disposal and reuse of waste water. Huge amounts of waste water were being generated and being released untreated into the surface and ground near the septic tanks into which the waste water was initially directed. This was polluting the water sources of the school and also other farmers nearby. A water treatment system was put in place to clean the water flowing out of the septic tanks. This consisted of 200 litre plastic drums laid horizontally filled successively with brick crush, sand and charcoal. Though the use of these three purifiers is well established, it is the first time in India that they have been put into a horizontal drum assembly to reduce the costs involved in water treatment. Since space is not a constraint in the school, this is a very cheap and effective system for treating waste water.

The water from the septic tanks enters this system and is purified while passing through the tanks to reach a Biological Oxygen Demand level less than the 30 mg/litre value for release into the soil prescribed by the Central Public Health and Environmental Engineering Organisation. However, instead of releasing this water into the soil, it is being collected in a tank and recycled by pumping to flush the toilets thus saving considerably on the use of potable water for this purpose. The waste water consequently flows in a closed loop from the toilets and bathrooms to the treatment system and back repeatedly. The excess treated waste water is used for gardening and plantation purposes. There is a vigrorous soil and water conservation and plantation exercise going on in the school to improve both water and biomass availability so as to eventually make the campus energy sufficient also.

Clean toilets can become a reality, but at a cost

Now the toilets in the school are being used regularly, they don't stink, and the waste water is not polluting the environment. This seems like a happy resolution of the exasperating and persistent problem of cleaning India in a remote corner of its vast expanse. Munnibai who studies in class eight says, "We used to fall ill frequently earlier due to various water-borne diseases but now our health has improved because of the enhanced sanitation". However, this successful resolution of the water supply and waste water management problem in the school has not been achieved without considerable difficulty.

Kakrana village is situated in a hilly terrain 45 kms away from the nearest town of Kukshi where all the hardware, cement, steel, sanitary fittings and pumps are available. There are no competent masons, plumbers and electricians available in Kakrana and so they have been brought from Indore and Ahmedabad, 300 kms away to implement the project. Consequently the average cost per unit consisting of a bathroom and toilet has worked out to be a whopping Rs 70,000. The Government, international agencies and NGOs on the other hand want to build these units for Rs 20,000 by skimping on the costs of water supply and waste water treatment. That is why they end up making a royal mess of the whole exercise and India remains as unclean as ever.

The initial budget decided for each bathroom and toilet unit was Rs 40,000 but due to the complexities, the cost eventually escalated to Rs 70,000. Even now, about Rs 5,000 more per unit has to be spent to replace the submersible pump in the hand pump with a more powerful 2 HP pump as the water availability in the open well goes down in the summer.

The building of practically usable and environmentally sustainable toilets systems with adequate water supply and proper waste water treatment and recycling is a complicated exercise that is highly location-specific. A low cost one-size-fits-all solution will not work. The construction and subsequent successful resolution of the problems that arose in the operation of the toilet system in the Rani Kajal School in Kakrana demonstrates the need for good pre-project planning and reasonable funding for achieving success in cleaning India.

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