Towards Sustainable Sanitation Systems

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The old man was well ahead of his time in more ways than one! He had installed dry sanitation systems in his hermitage. He was an advocate of sanitation systems that do not use copious quantities of water to transport pee and poo. None of the old man’s disciples who formed government truly understood his maverick ideas…be it on sanitation or on education! Anyway, we will speak on the old man’s ideas on education elsewhere. Regarding sanitation, let us read one of the pieces that the old man wrote on 13th September 1925, which appeared under the title ‘Our Dirty Ways’ in Navajivan 

  1. Both excretory functions should be performed only at fixed places.
  2. To pass urine anywhere in a street, at any place not meant for the purpose should be regarded an offence.
  3. After passing urine at any selected place, one should cover up the spot well with dry earth.
  4. Lavatories should be kept very clean. Even the part through which the water flows should be kept clean. Our lavatories bring our civilization into discredit; they violate the rules of hygiene.
  5. All the night-soil should be removed to fields.

“. . . If my suggestion is followed, no one would need to remove night-soil, the air would not become polluted and villages would remain very clean.

Cut to 1947!

Probably the most damaging non-indigenous concept that we adopted unthinkingly is one of water-based sanitation systems. Both versions of “drop and store” and “flush and forget” sanitation systems have caused irreparable damage.  Improper disposal of feces and wastewater has led to pollution of our waterbodies. Pathogens from the waste pollute our water and food and eventually pollute our own bodies. When 80% of the diseases in India are a result of improper sanitation, much more than one’s own health is affected. Specifically, 73 million working days are lost annually due to sicknesses caused by unsafe water and lack of sanitation. The economy of India as a whole is impacted since people must pay for visits to the health centre and on occasion lose their jobs because of an inability to go to work.

So, is there a magic wand? The old man, we all know we are talking about MKG, would have wanted each one of us to use the magic wand! Had he lived few more years, the next contest he would have announced would have been on a toilet system. But of course, for the old man liberty meant universal responsibility!

If you are a bit tired by now and are looking for some semblance of a technology solution, the good news is many attempts have been made and continue to be made to develop sustainable sanitation systems.   The main objective of a sustainable sanitation system would be to protect and promote human health by providing a clean environment and breaking the cycle of disease. In order to be sustainable, a sanitation system has to not only be economically viable, socially acceptable, technically and institutionally appropriate, it should also protect the environment and conserve natural resources.

Here are some sustainability criteria:

  1. Health and Hygiene:includes the risk of exposure to pathogens and hazardous substances that could affect public health at all points of the sanitation system from the toilet via the collection and treatment system to the point of reuse or disposal and downstream populations. This topic also covers aspects such as hygiene, nutrition and improvement of livelihood achieved by the application of a certain sanitation system, as well as downstream effects.
  1. Environment and Natural Resources:involves the required energy, water and other natural resources for construction, operation and maintenance of the system, as well as the potential emissions to the environment resulting from its use. It also includes the degree of recycling and reuse practiced and the effects of these (e.g. reusing wastewater; returning nutrients and organic material to agriculture), and the protection of other non-renewable resources, e.g. through the production of renewable energies (such as biogas).
  1. Technology and Operation:incorporates the functionality and the ease with which the entire system including the collection, transport, treatment and reuse and/or final disposal can be constructed, operated and monitored by the local community and/or the technical teams of the local utilities. Furthermore, the robustness of the system, its vulnerability towards power cuts, water shortages, floods, earthquakes etc. and the flexibility and adaptability of its technical elements to the existing infrastructure and to demographic and socio-economic developments are important aspects.
  1. Financial and Economic Issues:relate to the capacity of households and communities to pay for sanitation, including the construction, operation, maintenance and necessary reinvestments in the system. Besides the evaluation of these direct costs, the external costs and indirect benefits from recycled products (soil conditioner, fertiliser, energy and reclaimed water) have to be taken into account. External costs include environmental pollution and health hazards, while benefits include increased agricultural productivity and subsistence economy, employment creation, improved health and reduced environmental risks.
  1. Socio-cultural and institutional aspects:the criteria in this category refer to the socio-cultural acceptance and appropriateness of the system, convenience, system perceptions, gender issues and impacts on human dignity, the contribution to food security, compliance with the legal framework and stable and efficient institutional settings.

The old man would have concurred with these principles. Ok! So, what kind of products at household level and systems at city level come about by using these principles? Well, let us begin with products. In different contexts, the products would be different.

In the urban institutional context, one product from the sustainable sanitation movement is the “waterless urinal”. The waterless urinal is a product which saves between 40,000 to 75,000 litres of freshwater per urinal seat per year. In this context, IIT Delhi has taken a lead and converted about 100 urinals in the academic complex to waterless urinals. The conversion of existing urinals to waterless urinals has been carried out by Ekam Eco Solutions – an IIT Delhi based startup company. To know more about Ekam Eco Solutions, look up


In the rural household context, there is the “urine diversion dry toilet” which opens up the possibility of treating pee and poo as resources! The yellow line output “pee” could be used as liquid fertilizer – rich as it is in  nitrogen and phosphorous and the brown line output “poo” gets composted – so as to ensure pathogen destruction before being used as soil conditioner.


  • Globally, India has the largest number of people, more than 620 million still defecating in the open. About half the population of India use toilets.
  • India, at the current rate of progress will only achieve the sanitation target of MDG 7–c in 2054.

Applying sustainable sanitation at city scale, one begins to study nutrient cycles – Phosphorous and Nitrogen recycling. City scale sustainability requires adoption of closed loop approaches – in which the phosphorous and nitrogen which came from the farm and fish, through the food into our bodies, return to those very ecosystems. A global research coordination network by name Phosphorous RCN is researching into global P cycle to better understand P sustainability by recycling Phosphorous effectively and also by enhancing its use efficiency.


What can you do to promote sustainable sanitation? You can join UNICEF’s digitally led campaign to campaign for open defecation free India “Take Poo to the Loo”. But why this campaign? Because, daily 620 million Indians are defecating in the open. That’s half the population dumping over 65 million kilos of poo out there every day. If this poo continues to be let loose on us, there will be no escaping the stench of life threatening infections, diseases and epidemics. Log on to the website and take a pledge to campaign for eliminating open defecation.

Also, if you want to know more about where sustainable sanitation has been successful all over the world, visit or

If you would like to promote sustainable sanitation by installing product in your office or home, visit the webpage of IITD startup company or call CEO Uttam Banerjee on +91 9999807207.


– Dr Vijayaraghavan M Chariar is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Rural Development and Technology, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. He is a joint Faculty at IIT Delhi’s National Resource Centre for Value Education in Engineering where he delivers courses and workshops on “Wisdom-based Leadership” for professionals and institutions. Dr Chariar’s research interests are Design for Sustainability, Traditional Knowledge Systems, Ecological Sanitation and Wisdom-based Leadership. He has been a mentor to several youth who have taken the path of social entrepreneurship. Dr Chariar serves as Chairman of the sanitation startup Ekam Eco Solutions. He was awarded the Fulbright Visiting Professorship 2012-13 as part of which he affiliated with the College of Technology and Innovation, Arizona State University, Mesa, Arizona. Dr Chariar is a sought after speaker on entrepreneurship,  innovation and sustainability. He has several publications and patents to his credit.


Re- Engineering Sanitation in India

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It feels wonderful to be a sanitation practitioner and expert, living in a time and in a country where sanitation is almost on the verge of becoming a national obsession in both policy talks and programme implementation. This has been triggered by the launching of Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) from the ramparts of Red Fort by Honourable Prime Minister of India Sri Narendra Modi.

SBM, the newest version in the not so long history of sanitation programmes in India, encompassed urban areas in its mission, increased the sanitation financing and linked open defecation free concepts on behaviour change with an unprecedented construction drive of individual household sanitation facilities across the country.

However, in spite of this much needed and renewed obsession with sanitation, there is hardly any paradigm shift or conscious efforts to re- engineer the sanitation programme in rural and urban India against the backdrop of our centuries old track record of dodging the issue. My thought on the main pillars of this process of re- engineering sanitation in India are based in breaking some key myths related to the sanitation programme in India. These are outlined below.

Myth # 1 – the cost of a sustainable household Toilet is Rs. 12000 as per incentive offered under SBM (Rural) 

Perhaps this is the biggest myth among implementing organizations for both states and people. SBM offers an incentive for household toilet construction not a subsidy-. The results of this myth have been devastating to the sanitation sector. Consider this. Many implementing organizations in states and therefore people in rural areas have this notion that they have to construct a toilet in 12000 odd rupees received by government – means they trust that Rs. 12000 is the cost of a sustainable toilet in their household across a diverse and vast country like India.

Even a novice civil engineer will tell you that the cost of a sustainable household toilet will vary from place to place and will require some greater co-financing by the household as per their aspiration level, choice of material for construction and technology (e.g. Septic tank, twin pits, bio toilets etc.) and add on features such as storage tank, hand washing facilities etc. Therefore, it is important to take the message to the implementers of SBM and people that adherence to technical design and drawings of different kinds of sanitation systems for toilet construction and co- financing   is key to sustainable sanitation, no matter what it costs. Based on their affordability and preferences, the household can choose a toilet design based on available on-site or off- site technologies in the area.

Year after year , there is increasing demands from state governments to the central government to increase the subsidy ( oops .. incentive) from Rs.12000 to up to Rs.25000 based on the understanding of state governments of what it costs to construct an household toilet ( latrine cum bathroom with hand washing facilities ). Obviously, state government’s want 100% of the cost of Individual household toilets to be subsidized.  But there is a catch here. Catch number 1 is that the sense of ownership of a toilet which is completely constructed using government’s incentive is less therefore it is more unlikely to be used by all family members. Catch number 2 is the Community led Total Sanitation Approaches (CLTS) which triggers people’s action to become opendefecation free communities and has been widely used by developmental agencies in India for promotion of SBM. Prompting complete financial dependency for the construction of household toilets on government agencies (100% subsidy for cost of toilet approach) dismantles the very basic premise of CLTS- that people and communities can take charge to go for open defecation free using appropriate sanitation options ensuring sustained behaviour change based on community pressure. As a result, what we see of CLTS in India is a tool for Information, Education and Communication (IEC) rather than a tool for triggering community action in many cases.

Myth # 2 – The cost of sustainable sanitation is high and therefore this is a low priority among rural and urban poor.

Nothing can be as far from the truth as this notion. But this premise suits everyone and therefore it prevails as a deep rooted myth. So much so that even the poor have started believing in the status quo on sanitation.  However, the good news is that it makes sense to invest in a sustainable household toilet by rural and urban poor. Consider economic benefits from  sustainable household sanitation. If you explain  to an ordinary citizen thatIndia loses 6% of its GDP due to lack of adequate sanitation, the likeliness that this resonates with them is bleak except for being informed of some interestingeconomic data. However when you explain toa family of 5 persons that by not having a household toilet,their family is losing out annually an amount of Rs. 10250 /- approximately on health expenditurewhich could be easily saved, There is a high chance that  that you get an affirmative nod, listening ears and engaging minds.

Figure-1: Loss due to inadequate sanitation


Most of the estimates say that a sustainable and aspirational individual household toilet (a latrine cum bathroom with handwashing facility) is achievable within Rs.15000 to Rs.30000 per unit (connection to sewerage /Twin Pit/ Septic Tank with seepage pit /Bio Tanks with Seepage pits). However, the incentive to the eligible beneficiaries under SBM urban remains limited to Rs. 12000/ per household in rural areas and Rs. 8000 to Rs. 13000 per household in urban areas in many states.

The argument that needs to be taken to the people is that it makes perfect economic sense to invest in a sustainable and aspirational toilet even if they have to co- finance the cost by an additional amount required to construct a sustainable and aspirational toilet, as the benefit cost ratio (estimated to be 7.7 in case of SE Asia as per one of the studies) of construction of sustainable and improved toilet is too high to ignore.  With MFIs getting increasingly involved for soft loans for sanitation financing by household and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds being increasingly committed to support SBM, the time could not have been better to break this myth. In turn, to help people with getting access to their aspirational and sustainable toilet and access to sanitation financing. This indeed will ensure to plug the leakages between toilet construction and its usages and also increase the life of a toilet to live its full design year at least, if not more.

Myth # 3 – Of technological puzzles , perceptions and realities

There are a number of myths associated with sanitation technologies being implemented under SBM (Rural) and SBM (urban). How often do we hear that on-site is better than off -site sanitation solutions in the Indian context?  You may also hear of the poor quality of Septic Tanks being constructed and therefore surrounding pollution. How often do we attribute governance/management/planning failures to technological failures, for example the. performance of Sewerage Networks and Sewerage Treatment Plants.

The point here is that the implementation of SBM will need all the technologies that are available and probably many more for sustainable sanitation solutions which are context specific, affordable and require minimum operation and maintenance interventions or costs. However, there are no silver bullets here because each of the technology needs to be managed.  These myths related to technological puzzles, perception and scientific realities can be overcome by bringing in this knowledge and expertise within the domain of each household in a language which can be best understood by them. The best suited for the role of scientific communicators can be school and college children and therefore it is important to make this simplified technological knowledge on sanitation as part of curriculum and discussions in the schools and colleges of India.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here at those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion, standpoint or policy of the organization and networks that he works for and works with.

– Puneet Srivastava is a qualified civil engineer and environmentalist, working in the area of water, sanitation and hygiene for past 20 years with a varied range of organizations in India and abroad.  In past he has worked with DFID-India, World Bank assisted UP/Uttaranchal Rural water supply and sanitation Project, Feedback Ventures Private Limited, Halcrow Consulting Limited, Oxfam GB, UNICEF, German Development Cooperation (GIZ- earlier known as GTZ) ICRC Geneva and currently working with Water Aid India in New Delhi.