Ma insisted that in our new house to be built there should be at least two toilets provided for. Baba had always been against manually cleaned dry latrines. He insisted that we install waterborne sanitary toilets. The problem was that the village had no municipal sewerage. Therefore management of the outflow of a waterborne toilet system was difficult. Baba was however a specialist in public health. He had heard about self contained vermin-controlled automatic toilets. He decided to try one on. No commercial disposal units were available. Therefore every component of the system had to be designed and implemented locally. When all this was happening, in 1942, I was too young to understand what was being attempted. I was only 8 years of age. However, two years later, in 1944, the system was overhauled for the first time. Baba was present for the occasion. He took great pride in the fact that his experiment with this automatic sewage disposal system had worked. By then I was a ten year old and was able to share his excitement and pride. When the system was opened up and overhauled, he had explained to me how it worked. The budding civil engineer inside my ten-year old body was thoroughly excited by the innovation; I therefore remember it quite vividly.
The toilet block had four compartments and a verandah running through the length of the block. The first two chambers contained one WC (squatting pan type) each. The first one could be approached from the verandah while the second one opened up to the third chamber which was some sort of a washing and changing room. The last chamber was a bathroom. By the side of the toilet block was an enclosure with a tube-well and a huge water storage tub, I think of about 1500 litre capacity. The bathroom and the washroom had smaller water storage facilities.
The sewage disposal unit was located directly behind the toilet block. It was a concrete structure containing three chambers of plan view cross section of four feet by four feet. The whole structure was dug into the ground to a depth of 10 to 12 feet. (Please note that the drawing alongside is not to scale). The inner surface of the chambers was waterproofed with cement polish. A channel was dug on the surface of the ground behind the disposal unit along the rear wall of the toilet block. This channel was also made waterproof with cement. This channel carried the feces from the toilets to the disposal unit. Along this channel there was a wooden control flipper that could be moved to control the destination chamber for the incoming feces to box 1 or box 2.
The separating walls between the three chambers contained two small apertures. The aperture between box 1 and box 2 was set quite low on the wall while the aperture between boxes 2 and 3 was set high. The top of the disposal unit was covered with a concrete slab with three covered manholes on the three chambers. There was provision for ventilation between the chambers below the top cover and there was a vent pipe above box 1 that led to a vent stack pipe about 20 feet high along the toilet block wall.
From box 3, a drain was laid out on the surface of the ground. Unlike the input channel, this outflow drain was not waterproofed with cement. For the first 75 feet or so it was brick lined. It ended into a shallow well that functioned as a percolation tank. Since the local water table was high, especially during the rainy season, this shallow well was almost always filled to the brim and overflowing. Small shallow distribution drains were dug from it that meandered through our kitchen garden and went on to the sugar cane fields neighbouring our house.
Once the disposal unit was built, Baba got hold of a bag of vermin-culture seeds. I do not know where he procured it from, but I do remember that it was delivered in a sack and it was especially cared for. The three boxes of the disposal unit were seeded with this seed. We were thereafter allowed to use the toilets with the following restrictions:
: No use of soap or detergent in the toilet
: Minimal use of water to keep the toilet clean
: No draining of grey water (after washing clothes or swabbing floors through the toilets.
These restrictions, Baba told us, were to protect the worms that nested in the disposal unit.
Once regular use of the toilets began, no maintenance work was needed for a long time. After about a year, the unit was inspected. The first box was filled with solid waste up to more than three quarters of its volume. The mass was teeming with very fat and very long worms looking like miniature snakes. The second chamber had some solid stuff and worms but it had a lot of watery slime. The level of water was up to the hole connecting the third box. The third box held only some liquid. There was no real outflow from the third box. After the passage of eight or ten months, the situation changed and there was some outflow from the third box. The first box was by now absolutely full of solid matter while the second box was filled to the top with water and slime. The third box had also filled up with water that was being discharged in a trickle through the outflow drain. At this stage, the flipper valve was moved and the feces input were directed to the second box. Over then next six months the first box dried up to a large extent. An overhaul of the system was ordered. The first box was dugout and the content was piled in a heap on the ground. Strangely, the heap did not stink. When the workmen reached the level of the interconnection between the first and the second box they just plugged it with some stiff mud and continued emptying the first box. Over the next few days the first box was dried and cleaned and re-seeded with vermi-culture. The mud plug between the first and the second box was the removed and the first box filled with liquid seeping in from the second box. The first box was then covered up and the overhaul was deemed complete.
We lived in that house till February 1946 and the toilet block remained in use giving no cause for complaint. There after many things happened. The country was partitioned. That house of ours at Himaitpur village fell on the wrong side of the border and became a foreign land for me. I did not see that house again till 2002 when I made a nostalgic visit. The old toilet block had disappeared. New latrines had been installed. I did not inquire into the new municipal sewage disposal system.
As I write these lines in the middle of 2009, many thoughts bubble up in my mind and float away, some to that distant past and many more to an unseen future. We used this toilet system from 1942 to 1946 extensively with no difficulty, but the system did not survive the passage of time. I need to understand why the system failed. Also, I am not quite sure why those connecting holes were left between the walls of the three chambers. I am not even sure whether I remember that detail really clearly. And what did we do about the rest of the sanitary management for the household? Did we complete the logical cycle and include kitchen waste and brown water outflow in our plan? As far as I remember, we just dumped the kitchen waste into a shallow depression in one corner and allowed a clump of Aram Lily bushes to grow there. As far as brown water flowing out of the kitchen as well as the outflow from the bathrooms was concerned, we just directed them to another little depression within our compound. It soon became a festering breeding ground for mosquito and fly, and needed repeated intervention to keep it under control. In retrospect, our solid waste management system was a sum of some excellent and some quite ordinary sub-components. We were perhaps not aware of the full potential of the opportunity available to us.
So where do I go from here? Can this fragment of my memory be of any use to any one in this day and age? From 1947 to 2009 the population of post partition India has moved on from 360 million to 1030 million or there-about. Challenges in solid waste management and hygiene/sanitation have multiplied. Can I draw any lessons at all from my father’s experiment? It is my considered opinion that the system that we had left behind in East Pakistan / Bangladesh failed primarily because the people who had occupied our abandoned home might have been totally unaware of the principles that made the system work. If a pit was not dried out and emptied when it was about 90% full, the system would collapse. If the emptied chamber was not recharged with fresh vermin-compost seed before it was re-used, once again it would fail. If ingress of toxic substances like soap, phenyl etc into the chambers was not prevented, once again it might not work as designed. I do not know what actually caused the disappearance of the system. Will it be worthwhile to re-attempt this type of sanitation? Let me toss a few ideas about.
Our experiment of 1942 was designed for a single household. Three or four adults and four children used the system on a regular basis. We were blessed with plenty of land around the house. Within the family we had all the technical knowledge required to build/operate/maintain the ecological night soil disposal unit. We were also relatively affluent. The experience gained by us there cannot be utilized today directly as the environment has changed greatly. Population density has increased. Space for disposal that we had cannot be made available to every house-hold even in villages. In semi-urban areas it would be impossible to find such space. Therefore, to make our experience useable in current context we shall need to cater for space, technical knowledge and skills, and initial funding.
In my opinion, the most obvious solution for rural space would be the available road space. There is an urgent need to improve village roads; there are many central and state level plans for upgrading of village roads. Many village roads are not designed for motorized traffic. Narrow lanes divide household plots. With proper planning and a little bit of centralized R&D it should be possible to design lanes under which the disposal units can be buried. The lane laid on top of these disposal chambers should easily be able to carry pedestrian and two/three wheeler traffic. The Bureau of Indian Standards can lay down the specifications for such structures cum road. The controlling authorities for the ‘Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana’ can ensure the implementation of the norms laid down by the BIS. Money for the task can come from the allocations made for NREGA. Money can also come from the ‘Constituency Development Funds’ of the concerned MLA or MP. Availability of funds, I think, would pose no real problem.
Technological knowledge and skill development will need a lot of attention. Firstly, a steady source of the required vermi-culture product will have to be developed and its logistics will have to be made robust. The technology exists. If a project that covers a whole village of say 1000 families is created, it should be possible to train and sustain one or two families who would live off the vermi-culture necessary for the 500 to 1000 processing chambers that would be needed for the project. This effort could easily come from the various village employment generation schemes under way currently.
One major labour intensive work in the system would be the task of selectively opening and closing specific chambers as they fill up, tracking the condition of the closed chambers until their contents are dry, and then scooping the stuff out. The stuff that comes out will be a lot of very high grade natural fertilizer. This stuff will have to be packed in bags and sold commercially. It should be possible once again to generate self help groups that would perform this task and benefit by trading the produce. The village government might help them by supplying specially designed and built transporting tools (perhaps vans on cycle wheels) and mechanical scooping tools.
If the target village is large enough and the chambers can be clustered on adjacent roads/playground then it might become economical to even harness the methane generated as a waste product and use it for running a water pump and create a small village water supply system! The possibilities are endless. No one will prevent a village panchayat from creating a community bathing / washing facility below a water tank whose water is pumped up by the toilet generated methane and whose brown water is then collected, passed through a filter bed, recollected in a tank and then reused for pisciculture or other agricultural needs!
It is certainly exciting to dream about such projects, but there is always a catch some where. Money will have to be collected from multiple sources. Design, construction, location, and maintenance will be controlled by different centres of power. Knowing how our governance works in reality at the village level, it is impractical to expect a government official to be equipped intellectually and motivated enough to handle such a project that needs wide multi disciplinary knowledge and skills. This is where an NGO might come in effectively and send in a village level leader with the required qualities to get the system going. It is hoped that once the system gets established, once the vermi-culture worker sells his product, once the nominated man who would control the input/output scheme starts to get some cash out of the fertilizer, once the local farmer finds the fertilizer to be good for his fields, once the village people find the improvement in road connectivity to be to their benefit, then the system will survive even when the NGO man returns to his home or moves on to another project. Such dreams make me happy.