How Bacteria Could Solve India’s Hygiene Woes

Indian military scientists have found an Antarctic bacteria that eats sewage. Could this change the nature of Swacch Bharat?

The world over, former industrial giants are turning to green technologies to fix the environmental damage already done. Europe’s industrial giant, Germany, is on the brink of getting all the energy it needs from renewable sources. Oslo turns its waste into energy. Pittsburgh has clear blue skies; undreamt off by its inhabitants a hundred years ago. There are fish in the Thames. Only India and China seem to be caught in a nineteenth century time warp of dirty skies, filthy rivers, and slum-clustered urbanization.

But there is a scientific solution, and it comes from India’s military-scientific establishment: the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). Better known for their military hardware, scientists from the DRDO have found a bacteria under the Antarctic ice which they claim can eat sewage.

Called a ‘psychrophile’, it thrives in cold climates. But where DRDO initially sought to use it in bio-toilets on the high frontiers of the Himalayas, it’s a technology that could rescue citizens from filth and disease, and help clean up our messy environment as well.

DRDO has designed a very simple sewage bio-digester, to replace septic tanks, which will be loaded with an inoculum of this bacteria, refined and multiplied by the bacteria in cow-dung. In theory, the combination of bacteria will clean up the sewage, letting out safe, clean water that can be used for irrigating gardens. A scientific challenge has been mounted and the jury is still out on the biodigester’s versatility and efficiency, but there is no doubt that something like a scientific breakthrough has been achieved, though this may still need some refining under India’s varied field conditions.

To make the technology a sewage workhorse, it requires rapid multiplication, especially in rural and peri-urban areas, and this is where we come up against India’s cultural disability to market technology to its citizens.

Reaching the villages

DRDO, a scientific organization, requested the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) to partner it for marketing the system, and FICCI in turn licensed the transfer of technology to a number of firms located in the metros. Undoubtedly many were eager to ride on the Prime Minister’s Swachh Bharat bandwagon for the photo-ops and publicity it provides, hoping to cadge large defence and other government contracts.

But the problem the bio-digester is developed to tackle is not found in metros where all sewage lines are linked to municipal sewage mains and treatment tanks. The bio-digester is meant to replace individual septic tanks of rural or peri-urban localities without municipal sewage connections. Of course, DRDO expects that the metro-based companies will go out into rural areas with a missionary zeal to propagate its technology, but this can never happen. Photo-ops are to be found in the company of ministers, not doing sewage work in remote towns and villages. To produce a ‘feel-good’ effect at DRDO and FICCI, growth charts may be shown, but exponential curves mean nothing when starting from scratch.

It is impractical to expect companies with administrative overheads to market a new and unknown technology with a low-profit margin in rural areas, especially since it requires close customer relations and servicing over time. Just as it is impractical to expect the banking network, despite the hoopla over Jan Dhan, to reach out to poor rural customers. What you get is tokenism, and a ritualistic nod in the right direction.

Apart from replacing the old septic tank, the bio-digester could also be a partial solution to disease-breeding open defecation in rural areas. It is now well established that the reluctance of many rural households to constructing toilets is not due to the lack of money, but rather due to the fear of ‘pollution.’ Unlike the Chinese who readily use compost produced from human night soil, Indians will not even charge gobar gas units with human refuse. If the bio-digester does not have to be cleaned out on a regular basis like septic tanks, people may very quickly opt for its construction in large numbers, since hundreds of millions of women do suffer many hardships from the lack of secure toilets.

Bypassing the middleman

Why does DRDO need industry licensees who cannot and will not market the technology where it is required? The licensees are no more than gatemen that create an additional hurdle in the propagation of the technology. The construction of the system is simple enough to be adopted by any building contractor, even in remote villages. All one needs is the inoculum developed by DRDO. Why can’t DRDO provide contractors, builders, designers a ‘Toilet in a Box’ – a Do It Yourself kit with the inoculum and clear instructions for constructing the bio-digester with ordinary building materials.

If a good new seed variety is produced, it takes very little time for all farmers to adopt it. The bio-digester technology if put directly into the hands of local people will spread very fast if it is found useful by people. Of course there may be mistakes in construction here and there, but these very mistakes will throw up solutions for proper standardization. The Finance Minister is responsible for the working of DRDO. As one of the key promoters of the Swachh Bharat mission, he could incentivize the spread of this useful technology with tax rebates to contractors and householders.

The monitoring of the Swachh Bharat mission and the successful adoption of the bio-digester technology should be in the hands of social activists who have struggled all decades for a better human and natural environment. The shameful practice of manual scavenging still exists all over India, enslaving whole communities. Organizations and people with a track record of combating manual scavenging, such as Magsaysay Award-winning Bezwada Wilson, should be involved in monitoring such nationwide schemes. The profits out of installing the DRDO bio-digester and its inoculum should by rights go to these organizations and not to companies who are merely craving governmental favours.

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