The Curious Case of Mr Muthusamy

The Millennium Development Goals, which were launched with much fanfare in the beginning of the millennium, were meant to be reached by the end of 2015.  Even a cursory glance at the report card will show that India’s performance has been far from satisfactory. Interestingly, just before the MDG time frame came to an end, the Government of India lunched the Swachh Bharat Mission in 2014 aimed at making the country Open Defecation Free by 2019. While this programme has gained immense momentum in the last few years and continues to do so, it is important to note that the agenda has not gone beyond building toilets.
Just as in the case of many low and middle income countries, onsite sanitation systems are predominant in India. Toilets need containment structures such as septic tanks and twin pits that are scientifically constructed. Moreover, these containment structures need to be desludged regularly and the sludge has to be treated before being disposed. While an emerging market has made way for private operators to desludge the septic tanks and twin pits for a price, the story does not end there.
Have you ever wondered where the septage from the septic tank and twin pits is dumped ? More often than not, this septage is disposed of into water bodies or in open grounds thereby polluting the environment. Another convenient option is farm land, thanks to the popular perception that septage has high nutrient value and is beneficial to crops. Moreover, the water content in the septage also compensates for the increasing water shortage.
Recently, my colleagues and I went to a nearby town panchayat to interact with farmers who use raw septage as manure, and to understand the rationale behind this practice. Though it was a hot summer day, the cool breeze from the farms around made our expedition rather pleasant. The whole area was lush green, covered with a variety of crops. There was a strong aroma of fresh milk from the dairy nearby. Brushing aside the nostalgia that I felt for my hometown, I began my work by talking to the farmers who were working in their farms. “What are the crops you grow? How do you deal with the increasing water shortage? Has climate change impacted productivity,” we wanted to know. The farmers were very vocal in their responses and we hurriedly wrote down everything they were saying.
It was then that I saw Mr Muthusamy. He looked somewhere about 50 years old. He had a tired look about him. He was either exhausted from working in the fields or was just unwell. He, however, was eager to talk to us, and we made our way to where he was lying down on his rope cot. Mr Muthusamy began talking to us about the good old days when farming was easy, climate more predictable and water was plenty.  He said that though his borewell had enough water even to this day, he just like the other farmers had begun applying raw septage to his fields to save water. “But, we have stopped that practice in the last couple of years,” he said.
This naturally aroused our curiosity. We wanted to know the reason why Mr Muthusamy, unlike others, had suddenly stopped using readily available raw septage. “It smells a lot,” he said. “We cannot work on the land for at least three to four days after applying septage.”  This reply did not satisfy us. There was nothing new about the stench. So why had Mr Muthusamy stopped using raw septage in his farm?
A bit of prodding brought out the answer. “Using raw septage has led to the proliferation of visha poondu,” he said. “This plant is hindering the growth of crops and has led to decreasing yield.”  “Can you show us some visha poondu?,” we asked him. We wanted to know what this plant looked like. An half-hour’s walk into the field revealed that visha poondu was nothing but the parthenium weed.
parthenium_hysterophorus86“When there were a few plants around, we used to remove them manually, but now there seems to be an infestation of the weed. We are scared because people seem to be falling ill with different kinds of allergies,” he said.
Parthenium, (Parthenium hysterophorus) is a noxious invasive species, which is considered to be one of the worst weeds currently known. This is a weed of global significance responsible for severe human and animal health issues, such as dermatitis, asthma and bronchitis, and agricultural losses besides creating a great problem for biodiversity (Holm et al., 1997).
Mr Muthusamy was now in a talkative mood. “We have other issues too,” he said. “Whenever we work in the fields where septage has been freshly applied, we end up getting skin infections on our feet. As farmers, we consider our crops to be auspicious and we don’t wear footwear when we are in our fields. So each time we go to a field where raw septage has been freshly applied, a few of us end up with skin allergies,” he explained.
After a long conversation with Mr Muthusamy, we turned to leave.
As we were leaving, his wife, who was listening to the entire conversation quietly, asked us. “Can you do something about the septage? Add some chemicals to it, so that it becomes safe for us to use it?”
It looked like the importance of treatment had reached Muthusamy’s farm.


  1. Holm, J. Doll, E. Holm, J. V. Pancho, and J. P. Herberger, World Weeds: Natural Histories and Distribution, John Wiley & Sons, New York, NY, USA, 1997.


Vinitha Murukesan
Environment and Sanitation Analyst, TNUSSP

Bladder Woes: Bridging the sanitation gap along the highways

As I was mentally getting prepared for an almost 12-hour journey from Delhi to Shimla, my thoughts were fixed on one crucial thing, to get through the journey without having to use any of the public toilets on the way. The highways do not have any specific public toilet structures and by public toilets, I refer to those available in hotels or restaurants situated on the highway. I am not ashamed to confess that I suffer from toilet anxiety or toilet phobia particularly at the thought of using public toilets. The fear of having to use an unhygienic and a reeking toilet compels me to consciously hold the urge to urinate, no matter how bumpy the ride is. Though it may sound anomalous, it is a fact that many women silently endure this inescapable dilemma while traveling. This pernicious tendency to procrastinate the urge to pee not only increases one’s likelihood of developing urinary tract infections (UTIs) but also intensifies the anxiety level. This then leads us to an important question, why is there a vacuity in sanitation amenities between urban set ups?


Toilet 11The answer is rather direct – sanitation along state and national highways has not received adequate attention within the WASH sector or policy in India. In the context of urban sanitation, which in recent years has received concerted attention among policy-makers and practitioners in India, the provision of toilets along National or State Highways is a missing component. The vision of the National Sanitation Policy 2008 by the Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India clearly states that, “All Indian cities and towns become totally sanitized, healthy and livable and ensure and sustain good public health and environmental outcomes for all their citizens with a special focus on hygienic and affordable sanitation facilities for the urban poor and women” (NUSP, 2008 Providing sanitation related amenities along State or National Highways certainly does not come under its purview and this gap has been filled to some extent by other Government departments and agencies like the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways and the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI).

The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has dove-tailed the sanitation component into their broader sector guidelines and in 2013, issued a set of guidelines/norms for access permission to fuel stations, private properties, rest area complexes and such other facilities along National Highways. The rest areas will have to provide a variety of amenities to road users including free access to toilets 24/7.  Further, in 2016, NHAI announced that, in line with the Prime Minister’s Swachch Bharat Mission, processes are in place to upgrade toilets in petrol pumps along the National Highway. The petroleum companies were also given a basic design to conform to and renovate. Further, proposals were called for setting up wayside amenities along National Highways across India using Public Private Partnership (PPP) ( . These initiatives are commendable and definitely provides some amount of solace to the existing problem. However, it does not cater to all kinds of road users especially those who travel by public or private tourist buses that operate on their own terms and makes pit stops in stipulated motels/restaurants. So, what can be the solution to this cohort?

The most viable opportunity is to target motels and restaurants that dot all along the State and National Highways. These rest points offer to the tourists or travellers an opportunity to replenish and relieve themselves. Nevertheless, the toilets offered by these establishments are often dirty and insufficient with just one toilet for a busload of people. By identifying and mapping the existing motels or restaurants amenity-wise, the State or Urban Local Government can include them under the broader umbrella of a Sanitation Mission. This can include orientation and training of motel or restaurant owners on the need to provide and regularly maintain hygienic toilets. In order to motivate them to ensure a standard, the toilets in the establishments can be given a five-star ranking based on the level of cleanliness and usability of the toilet. The toilet star ranking can be then exhibited outside the establishment for visibility. In addition, the tourist logistic companies can also be roped in to educate them on ensuring that tourists are given a fair opportunity to use clean toilets. In doing so, they should be encouraged to choose motels or restaurants that have a toilet star ranking that is four or five.

Access to a clean and a safe toilet is a right for all and the responsibility to ensure accessibility rests predominantly with the National and State Governments. By re-defining urban spaces within the existing National Sanitation Policy, these oblivion toilets will serve its purpose to anxious travellers like me.





Reeba Devaraj
Senior Specialist, TNUSSP

Thoughts on the Masons’ Training

Who built the Taj Mahal? Yes, that’s right. The masons built it.”

With this opening remark, the Masons’ Training Programme held at Coimbatore was kicked off.

I had the opportunity to join in on the Masons’ Training initiative conducted as a part of Capacity Building initiative in both Trichy and Coimbatore.

Now for a brief introduction to the training programme: the audience belonged to an age group ranging between those in their teens to those in their 60s. The average experience ranged from 20 to 30 years.  About 35 attendees were present in each of the venues and the training programme was coordinated by IIHS, CDD and Gramalaya in Trichy and, IIHS, CDD and Keystone foundation in Coimbatore.

Why was a training programme needed for the masons? It has been found that in most households septic tanks are mere holding tanks built without any proper lining. And these are not desludged regularly which has led to groundwater contamination. The training programme was arranged to create awareness among the masons on the sanitation value chain and provide them with information on how to construct septic tanks and twin pits according to the Indian Standard Guidelines.

What did the masons learn? Though most masons seemed to know the dimensions of the septic tank to be constructed (for an average household of five people), particulars about twin pit construction and information about gas formation in septic tanks were new to them. The masons were also unaware of important details like the necessity and placement of vent pipes. This knowledge was imparted during the training.

DSC_4934What we can learn from the masons? There were masons with over 30 years of experience sitting very patiently listening to the training programme with great modesty and respect for the instructors. Many were brilliant organisers in addition to being builders. In Trichy we conducted a session where a septic tank and twin pit was actually built. The manner in which the masons cooperated with each other was notable. Most of them had no experience of working together yet they managed to divide the work amongst themselves efficiently and execute it. In another instance, during the Coimbatore training programme, the masons were given a task in which they had to make a bio-toilet model from hardboard cutouts. Bio-toilets are to be placed above the ground level with steps leading to the door. In the model that they were asked to build the door of the toilet opening outside. One of the masons pointed that if there are to be steps leading upwards to the door, the door has to open on the inside. The masons were aware of these small but important details in construction, which if ignored would lead to difficulties at a later date.

What I learnt from the training? Educated personnel, such as professional engineers, are ignorant of technical terms in native/regional languages, which are crucial in communicating with those on the ground especially if we are attempting to change their habits. I learned many of the commonly used engineering terms in the regional language during the training programme, including words for treatment, technology, advanced technology, septic tank, soak pit, twin pit, single pit etc. This was of considerable benefit and motivated me to find out the translations or the words used by masons in my native language as well.

Another lesson I learnt was one of wisdom that is acquired from experience. So for instance, it is one thing to know that if plastering is to be done, then the ratio of cement to sand is 1:6, (being a civil engineer I know this) then again the amount of water to be added is something I will require some time and effort to get right. But for the masons all of this comes naturally – without any effort at calculation. It is my belief that civil engineering students should spend at least a day with the masons to understand the difference between “textbook knowledge” and one gained through experience.

Was the mason’s training helpful to the masons? Though they were aware of the basics, many masons were deficient in their grasp of crucial details to be kept in mind during the construction of a septic tank or twin pit- regarding vent pipes, gas formation etc. Filling these gaps in their existing knowledge helped the masons a great deal. And when we see proper onsite sanitation systems being built in the households of Trichy and Coimbatore in the coming years, we will get a definitive answer on how useful the training was.





Vimala PP
Junior Specialist, 

“Synergy between WASH and nutrition” – It’s complicated

Sounds like a status message in Facebook. But that should pretty much sum up the relationship between WASH strategies and nutrition outcomes. Obviously, when there is unsafe water, pitiable and inadequate sanitation conditions with woeful hygiene practices, it will inadvertently lead to public health implications. This is especially critical, when we talk about the imminent health hazards, in overtly crowded and densely populated spaces filled with undernourished urban poor population with low economic background.

The reason and outcome of poverty itself are mutually exclusive for undernourishment in the urban poor populations. In addition to that, undernourished people with poor health are obviously more prone and vulnerable to WASH related infections, such as fecally transmitted infections including but not limited to diarrhea, environmental enteropathy, nematode infections and other intestinal infections.


There is an active, nasty cycle of WASH related infections and undernutrition. For instance, an under nourished person who is recently infected by diarrhea due to poor WASH practices, will have lower stamina and strength left in his/her body, as their capacity to absorb nutrients will have reduced on their way to recovery. So in the context of the urban poor, the nutrients absorption rate or the capacity of the undernourished person to take advantage of the nutrient / calories intake is significantly reduced. With poor immunity, under nutrition and lack of access to good healthcare, they will be more susceptible to subsequent infections, and the cycle continues, adding to their cup of woes.

The impact of poor sanitation practices and the resulting diarrheal infections, on under nourished children is much worse. It has been proven to cause growth stunting (low height-for-age), wasting (low weight-for-height), and underweight (low weight-for-age), and even child deaths. The micronutrients deficiency (in terms of Vitamin A, B12, Riboflavin, Folic acid, Iron and Zinc) that is evident among children and also women, exacerbates their vulnerability to WASH related infections. I don’t want to sound like an emissary of Doomsday. But the other associated fallouts that dampen the functioning of the system besides malnutrition, stunting in children, premature deaths, are wasted time and loss of productivity.

So in order to achieve a universal and sustainable outcome, it is imperative that we start to think on the lines of linking and establishing synergies between WASH plans and policies with nutrition strategies. We need to work towards demonstrating and bringing in WASH interventions by coalescing with nutrition programmes.

The key priorities would be to reduce the high malnutrition rate, to address the micronutrient deficiency, improve quality, coverage and access to water, sanitation and hygiene services and practice, adopting nutrition sensitive sanitation and holistic WASH related interventions, to improve the overall health of the populations and well, the betterment of humanity. Pretty lofty and ambitious one might say. Easier said than done, right! But in this so called post-truth and self-awareness era, as the popular saying goes, to making it count, if we do our bit to instill a systematic progressive change in our midst then we just might make a positive difference in the world.

References used: (accessed on Mar 28, 2017) (accessed on Mar 28, 2017) (accessed on Mar 28, 2017)

Suneethi Sundar
Specialist, TNUSSP

Will building toilets end Open Defecation?

Will building toilets solve the problem of Open Defecation? – Fecelore – Stories on Sanitation

Sanitation is the name given to the process, facilities and services employed towards the safe disposal of human waste – which includes feces and urine. Human waste unless properly disposed of, is not just really gross but also tends to be a major cause for several water-borne diseases like cholera, diarrhoea, gastro-enteritis and typhoid. According to the World Health Organisation, improving sanitation can have a hugely significant beneficial impact on the health of individuals and families.

Inadequate sanitation also has serious economic implications. The health impact of poor sanitation results in pronounced economic losses which come from direct medical costs of treating sanitation-related illnesses, and indirect costs due to reduced or lost productivity as a result of ill health. Infact, inadequate sanitation is said to have caused India considerable economic losses, equivalent to 6.4 per cent of India’s GDP in 2006, or Rs.2.4 Lakh Crore.

According to the UN report card, close to 946 million people in the world have little or no access to sanitation and continue to practise open defecation. According to 2011 census, 53.1% (63.6% in 2001) of the households in India do not have a toilet, with the percentage being as high as 69.3% (78.1% in 2001) in rural areas and 18.6% (26.3% in 2001) in urban areas. However, providing toilets alone cannot solve the problem of unsafe sanitation.

Addressing the sanitation problem is not just about eliminating open defecation by providing toilets, but also of ensuring safe disposal of the fecal waste without it being exfiltrated into the environment. Attention should be paid to the social and behavioral aspect of the community while formulating solutions for access to safe sanitation.


Looking beyond toilets

Will building toilets solve the problem of Open Defecation? – Fecelore – Stories on Sanitation

A close look at the ground realities will show us where the problem actually lies. For instance, it has been observed that toilets are being provided by the government and ULBs to end open defecation, but access to toilets continues to be a problem. A casual walk around any city or town would show us people urinating in public spaces because they do not have access to toilets. Providing toilets at random locations has not helped in solving the problem of open defecation or urination.

A news article in the Indian Express titled ‘It’s No Joke – State of the World’s Toilets’ by Water Aid said: “If all 774 million people in India waiting for household toilets were made to stand in a line, the queue would stretch from Earth to the moon and beyond. However, in places where toilets do exist, scant attention has been paid to the needs of women, children and people with disability. Access to clean and working toilet is a key to preventing open defecation, and beginning the journey towards safe sanitation.

Providing user-friendly and clean toilets in parks, bus stations, markets, petrol pumps, small restaurants and places of tourist interests should be made mandatory. If we continue providing toilets without looking into their access, maintenance and usability, it is unlikely that we will witness a real change as far as open defecation and open urination is concerned. Toilets with no water or unsafe toilets are only structures which will play little or no role in the long journey towards safe sanitation.

sancy photo