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.
2 replies on “Fighting Outdoor Defecation in Rural Bihar”
Community Toilet in villages is the worst sanitation concept one could ever conceive.
When there is space availability and opportunity to customize personal toilet solutions for the rural households, constructing a community toilet does not only seem out of context, but a solution being imposed by a person who does not have any idea of rural Indian context. It seems to me that the entrepreneur behind this concept is more focused on generating energy than on appropriate solutions for the rural poor.
Community toilets inherently suffer from various issues – ownership issues, usage issues, operations issues etc to name a few. The amount of money and effort that will be used to solve these issues should rather be used in developing low-cost, culturally appropriate and personal sanitation solutions.
Top down solutions like these, which are conceived inside rooms without actually taking culture fit, scalability and replicability, do not only work, but also cause a lot of disenchantment in the minds of rural poor who then take longer time to adopt solutions that actually work
Thank you for taking the time to comment our work. As the director of Humanure Power, I welcome any critiques of our model and programming. I appreciate you looking at development work through such a critical lens – in fact the evolution of our program has come by looking at things in the same way.
We have been working in this community for 4 years now. It took us that long to establish a relationship with the community so that we can best understand their needs. We only just opened our community sanitation facility last month. Since then, we have had over 14,000 toilet uses. I firmly believe this a testament to our health education efforts, commitment to working with the community, and our insistence on toilet maintenance.
Yet we are by no means wedded to the community toilet model. How could we be? The vast majority of Indians who defecate outside live in rural areas. Many of these areas are not densely populated at all. The community toilet model will never work in these areas. Individual household toilets must be provided to end outdoor defecation in these contexts. As an organization, we are working tirelessly to advocate for this. But we also want to ensure that improvement to infrastructure access are coupled with guarantees of maintenance. This is something that many schemes have failed at, and results in people reverting back to defecating outside. The other consideration that must be made while discussing the option of individual toilets is access to land. There are hundreds of millions of people in Bihar, where Humanure Power works, who do not own land. Improving access to household toilets in this scenario would require a concerted effort (one that as an organization we are again making) to put pressure on the government to distribute land. The Bhoodan program (a Ghandian era land distribution program) has failed and has left scores of landless people in its wake. Household toilets are not an option, unfortunately, for these people.
I also appreciate your concerns about our energy program. In an ideal world, why would toilet construction necessitate the production and utilization of energy? Funders are looking for sustainable models. I’ll be the first to admit that we feel that pressure. However, we have done our best to not impose any interventions on the community. Our initial hope was to use methane gas to generate electricity that could charge 12volt batteries. These would be rented out to the community as a portable energy source. After countless meetings with the community, we realized the folly of this plan. Not only did it pose a technological hurdle, it wasn’t really what the community wanted. What they told us, time after time, was their need for clean drinking water. We have decided to use our energy source to power a water filtration system. This will improve access to safe water for the communities we are working with. Again, this idea was born out of the community. We are not wedded to any particular energy solution – methane utilization should be adapted to the needs of unique communities, something we are committed to doing.
I hope this answers some of your concerns. I’d be happy to answer any more questions you might have. Thank you again, for taking the time to comment on our work!