July 1st – 26. July 2nd – 19. July 3rd – 27. In India there are rarely small numbers. A lot of people, a lot of cell phones and, most importantly for us, there are a lot of people defecating outside. 650 million people defecating outside. Unfortunately, the numbers that I encounter every day are the numbers of human waste deposits on the road leading into Nimua village. They may seem small but collectively they represent a much bigger sanitation crisis in India. Human waste contaminates water and food for entire communities and is a lead cause of malnutrition and host of childhood diseases.
Humanure Power (HP) is working to fight against outdoor defecation in India by using community toilet blocks to provide toilet access in rural India. The toilet facilities are unique structures in that they house a biogas digester that powers a generator, which provides electricity for a water purification system. The clean water produced will then be sold for below market price to the surrounding communities. While it may seem like a complicated building and mechanism for rural Bihar, modifications to existing technology has made it possible. The development and support of Sulabh International provided the original toilet technology, and the dedicated work of teams in India and the United States made the design and implementation of the pilot toilet block a success.
My work this summer as a Crook Fellow with HP is focused on obtaining government assistance to scale the construction of community sanitation facilities throughout rural Bihar. To achieve this level of scaling we are meeting with officials to discuss the HP project and model with a focus on the sustainability and social impacts of the toilet block. Developing a plan for sustainability will always be a work in progress, but we have made great strides in determining the requirements for successful facilities in Supaul District. Part of the plan includes monitoring the use of the toilets. We developed a data collection system for the use of the toilets and are constantly finding ways of improving our methods. The staff members – hired from the village to maintain the facility and count the users – monitor everything from the number of people using the facility to the time of heaviest use to use by different age groups.
So back to the numbers, and the bigger problem at hand. The numbers we count walking to Nimua represent a microscopic sample size of what is going on around in the community around us. The road leading into the village is a small sample of the village of Nimua, and the Gram Panchayat – a local self-government institution at the village or small town level in India – as a whole. Children usually claim ownership of the piles we walk by every morning, as teenagers and adults prefer to use the surrounding fields and shrubbery for privacy. Thus, for every deposit we walk by, scores of people walk into the fields and into shaded tree groves to relieve themselves. The problem becomes even bigger when we look at the entire district of Supaul. There is a total population of 2.2 million people, yet 1.7 million do not have access to a toilet. These are the numbers that we really need to be talking about.
It is important to dispel the myth that outdoor defecation is a choice. There are very few people who would realistically say that they prefer to go walk out into a field and knowingly harm themselves and their families with their own waste. This situation is a result of the region’s poverty, corruption of local politicians, and the inability to afford to build a toilet. That is why HP is doing the work it does. Outdoor defecation is not a choice and it should stop being treated as a choice. Providing toilets is thus an important service to provide, but these are also communities that have historically had extremely limited access to toilets. This means that the transition will be a slow process, as behaviors and habits have become normalized over generations. To change them will take time, as the counts from our daily walk into the village highlight this, but with over 5,000 users in the first two weeks there are already steps being made to end outdoor defecation.