"Ecological Sanitation" Eat, Excrete, Compost !
M Subburaman, Director, SCOPE:

"As per the Millennium Development Goals, by 2015, at least 50% of the Indian population should have toilets in their own households. This roughly translates into construction of 6000, 7000 toilets per second. In order to achieve this goal we have the responsibility of creating awareness among the people and preparing them to accept something new. Ecosan will work once the people are educated about the gravity of the situation."

In the interview Subburaman tells about SCOPE"™s experiment in building Ecosan toilets in the tsunami affected village Kameshwaram. Subburaman believes that Ecosan toilets will prove to be very useful particularly in the future when water will be a limited resource.



Could you please tell us something about yourself?

My name is Subburaman and I am the Director and Managing Trustee of SCOPE. Our organization is a pioneer of the Ecosan toilets in the country. The toilets have been constructed with financial support from the UNICEF, District Rural Development Agency and Friends in Need, a non-governmental organization based in France.

Why did you choose to work in Kameshwaram?

Kameshwaram is a village just next to the ocean. In the post-tsunami period, the government entrusted us the task of looking into the drinking water and sanitation situation in the tsunami relief centers and in the temporary shelters.

In Kameshwaram, as compared to the other places, due to large coconut plantations, loss of lives was lesser.  The people here had already planted a large number of trees as a precaution against dangers arising from the sea. In that sense, they seemed to be more aware. Secondly, a majority of volunteers preferred to work in the rural areas close to the Nagapattinam town.  But we did not want to work in the periphery of towns. We wanted to work in the interior villages where others would not reach.  We found that in Kameshwaram generally people also had a very positive attitude and that is why we started work here.

Why and how did you decide about building Ecosan toilets in Kameshwaram?

We visited all the tsunami affected villages. We conducted a survey in the Nagapattinam district to learn about the water and sanitation situation. We found that in the areas adjoining the sea-shore, people never used toilets and they would just go to the fields or open areas to relieve themselves. During our visit we also found that the government had built pit toilets. But within a week these toilets were unusable as the water level was very high. After a foot of digging there was water.  

There was no garbage management and no water management in the tsunami affected areas. The potential of contamination of ground water resources and thereby health hazards seemed to be very high and we wanted to do something about it. Another problem was that the farmlands got salinated and no cultivation was possible.

So we thought of constructing the ecological sanitation toilets (the compost chamber type of toilets) here. We had already made these toilets in Tiruchi and tested the compost as manure for plants and we felt the model could be replicated here.

How did you tell the people about the Ecosan toilets and their benefits?

It was a challenge for us because people were not used to having toilets in their village at all. We had to first tell them about the need and importance of having toilets. But since they were all scared after the tsunami and did not want any other public health hazard they paid attention to what we were saying. They realized the importance of having toilets and agreed to get them built.

In the temporary shelters, women started using the toilets more often than the men. The men would still be reluctant to use the toilet. So initially, we ourselves were a little hesitant to construct these toilets. Then we started talking to people and campaigning on the need for toilets. We explained to them that these new toilets, are water-free, and do not need any squat pans or basins. We showed them films on the working of Ecosan toilets. They were curious and surprised.

We realized that it will probably help if we can build one toilet on a pilot basis and let them decide for themselves. For the pilot we selected Shanthi’s house. Shanthi is a sincere and hard working woman. She had been engaged in the women’s group activities and was well known to people in the village. We constructed the toilet and asked the family and others to use it and give us their feedback. We wanted them to learn about the working of these toilets through practical experience. Once people saw the toilet for themselves, they got somewhat convinced.

Then we selected a group of 50 “interested” persons from the village and took them for a visit to Tiruchi where we had already experimented with various models of Ecosan toilets. We requested these villagers to have a one on one discussion with the families that were using these toilets.

The people shared and interacted with each other. They also got a feel of handling the compost fecal waste inside the chamber with bare hands. After that trip, things started gaining momentum here. Within a month, the news about this toilet started spreading rapidly. More and more people requested for these toilets. Within a span of four months, around 100 Ecosan toilets were constructed.

How did you involve the community?

While we were constructing the first 100 toilets, people came to know that our goal was to construct just 100 toilets. They started approaching us for more toilets in the village. Generally, any project does not succeed without the active participation of the community. Community participation is a must. It has to be either in the form of cash or kind. For example, if you construct free toilets they will just not use them or at best use them to dump firewood.

So we shared the detailed cost break-up with the people. The cost of each toilet was Rs.7, 000, of which UNICEF was giving Rs.2, 500, the DRDA Rs.1, 200 and the FIN Rs.1, 200. The balance was to be paid by the house owner. We even told them the cost for bricks, cement, etc. People readily agreed to share the cost. Some who could not afford to pay the whole amount paid Rs.1000/- as advance and promised staggered payments.

People extended their full cooperation. The credit for this transformation goes to Shanthi. She volunteered for the first toilet in this village. Earlier women would feel embarrassed to go to the fields but now they are very happy with the toilet facility. They say they can focus on other work better. The change in Shanthi is worth appreciating. She was initially just a shy member of the women’s group. Then she got elected as a ward member in the panchayat elections. Now she has risen to the post of the Vice President. I feel this is a great achievement. Ever since the first toilet was built in her house, she has become more confident and empowered. Her communication skills developed over the period and people respect her. She has played a major role in convincing others in the village.  

What kind of a feedback did you receive from people on the Ecosan toilets?

Through this project we took up a small social study. We provided a card to each family where the Ecosan toilet was built. All information about the family was noted on this card. Along with that the starting and completion date of the construction of the toilet, details on the pattern of usage were recorded. This helped to ensure that the users were aware of the time taken for the chambers to get filled. On the reverse side of the same card, space was provided for recording details of visitors who came to see the toilet and their opinions. These comments were collected as feedback.

We found that generally people gave positive comments on the toilets. Many people from different parts of the country and abroad who visited this area saw these toilets and they are now attempting to construct similar toilets in their own areas. For instance, in the Cuddalore area, a lot of villagers constructed these toilets.

Also many villagers migrate to cities for work from here. Some of them visited their village and happened to see these toilets. They immediately approved them because they were aware of the hazards of the septic tanks and the gases emanating from them. They had seen many people die of asphyxiation in cities.

What do you think about the utility of the Ecosan toilets in future?

I think in the span of next five years, these toilets will be built throughout the nation. At the government level, they have understood the importance and feel it is a critical need.  These toilets are suitable in both situations - where ground water level is very high and in drought prone areas. In the case of wet toilets, for one time use, one needs 10 – 12 litres of water, and if there are five members in the family, we are talking about 60 litres of water just for toilets. In case, the family uses the traditional toilet more than once, the total water usage would be in the order of 120 litres a day. Just for toilet needs, if a family requires 120 litres of water, where would so much water come from?  Already there is an acute shortage of water. After a decade or two, water will become very precious and rare. This is what the scientists and analysts are already saying.  Already, in many parts of the country, they are selling one litre of mineral water for Rs.10–12. People have doubts about the quality of ground water, and in many places, it is unfit for drinking.  In this scenario, it is our responsibility to conserve water resources.  We need to ensure that there is no contamination of water bodies and sources.

The manner in which Ecosan works is quite straightforward. The eco-toilet is built above the ground with a twin-chamber beneath the toilet pan to collect fecal matter, over which ash is strewn to help dehydrate and deodorize it.  Urine and wastewater are then diverted and let out onto to a home garden, while the fecal matter in the chamber is reduced to powdery manure that can be removed from the chamber once or twice a year.

The Ecosan toilet is a waterless, dehydration/evaporation system that provides a safe, non-polluting and cost effective solution to the sanitation problem. It offers a standard of respectability and convenience, comparable to a waterborne system, yet without the prohibitive costs and obvious strain on precious water resources.

Ecosan toilets are relatively lightweight and easy to move into position during installation. The unit does not require any type of flushing mechanism, eliminating the risk of mechanical failure. It uses no water, so no plumbing is required. It has no sewer connections. It is ideally suited for both city and rural homes. It has a modern and functional design and is easily transportable. It uses no chemicals. I feel they are a must for our country and soon they will become very popular.
Where else are you building these toilets other than homes?

When I visited the nearby school, we found that 750 children study there and the toilet facilities are inadequate. We are in the process of constructing Ecosan toilets for the school as well. They will be inaugurated within a week’s time. The neighboring village school has also requested us to construct toilets.  We are planning to execute the project in that school also. The government will provide assistance for that venture.

As per the Millennium Development Goals, by 2015, at least 50% of the Indian population should have toilets in their own households. This roughly translates into construction of 6000-7000 toilets per second. In order to achieve this goal we have the responsibility of creating awareness among the people and preparing them to accept something new. Ecosan will work once the people are educated about the gravity of the situation. For water, the biggest hurdle is the mindset of our people. If people pay more for the water they use or waste, the situation will change. People will then realize the magnitude of the problem. Only then every Indian will have access to sanitation and clean water to drink.

From another point of view, ecology, sanitation, water, hygiene and agriculture are inter-linked and at a time when chemical fertilizers are polluting water bodies, the bio-fertilizers produced from the Ecosan toilets provide a good alternative.

How did you get the toilets constructed? Did you first train the masons?

Yes we selected the best masons of the area and trained them in construction.  Government has provided assistance in these trainings. UNICEF and FIN supported us throughout. The masons have not only done an excellent job, they have also ensured a consistent quality in the construction of these toilets.  Two French nationals have come here and are staying here to learn about this project.  They are conducting a study on the usage of these toilets, problems faced and possible solutions.

In the future, we plan to host a competition.  One of the factors we want to consider is how people are improving on the aesthetics of the eco toilets. Also, the first toilet was constructed for Shanthi in the month of May/June. The first chamber of her toilet has been closed, we plan to open the back door of the chamber and collect the manure from that. We want to celebrate this occasion. We will invite government officials, scientists, press, media, NGOs, etc. We want to demonstrate how this manure is extracted and how it is put to effective use.

In this village, generally, can we say all of them are first generation users? Could this be one of the reasons why this project has been accomplished so easily?

Yes, this is true. Most of the people did not have toilets at all and this could be one of the reasons for the success of this project.

Ends here
1. The Society for Community Organization and People’s Education, a non-profit, non-Government Organization registered under the Public Trust Act on February 7, 1986, works for the integrated socio-economic and human development of disadvantaged and under-privileged communities in interior micro villages of Musiri Block in Tiruchirappalli District and Perambalur Block of Perambalur District of Tamil Nadu, India.