At 25.1%, the state of Bihar has the lowest toilet coverage in India. This means only a quarter of Bihar’s total population of 10.4 crore has access to toilets. The remaining 75% defecates in the open, causing both health problems and environmental degradation.

Under the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin, both the Government of India and the state government are making concerted efforts to increase toilet coverage in Bihar. However, the lack of focus on ecological sanitation and contractor-driven toilet construction targets is hurting the sanitation sector.

Technologically speaking, there are various options for household sanitation. These include the simple pit latrine, pour flush latrine, soak-pit and those that run on the septic tank system.

However, in recent years, the concept of ecological sanitation has gained ground in the country. Commonly known as ecosan, this concept is based on the principles of recycling.

In such toilets, human excreta and urine are separated at the source to be later used as fertiliser in agricultural fields. A flush of water is not required; at the most a minimal amount of wash water is required. Thus, an ecosan toilet not only saves water and reduces the risk of groundwater contamination (conventional underground soak-pits often leak or overflow), it also reuses nutrients in faeces and urine to boost crop production and reduces consumption of chemical fertilisers.

North Bihar has abundant surface water sources and a shallow groundwater table (2-5 metres below the ground level). It also faces frequent floods, as 73% of the state (mostly North Bihar) is flood prone.

Ecosan toilets are particularly useful in such areas.

“Shallow groundwater table and frequent floods means high risk of groundwater contamination due to human excreta stored in the underground soak-pits of conventional latrines,” said Eklavya Prasad, managing trustee of Megh Pyne Abhiyan, a public charitable trust working on water and sanitation issues in North Bihar. “Also, during floods, the conventional flush toilets are rendered useless as flood water enters the pits and chokes the system.”

Groundwater contamination is a major concern in Bihar because groundwater is the primary source of drinking water.

In order to promote ecological sanitation, Megh Pyne Abhiyan has tied up with Water Action, a Pashchim Champaran-based Non-Governmental Organisation, to promote ecosan toilets in rural areas of the district where overall toilet coverage is mere 24.7%.

“We are promoting ecosan toilets in the villages of Pashchim Champaran,” said Vinay Kumar, secretary of Water Action. “But, competing with free, conventional pit toilets being constructed under the Swachh Bharat Mission is turning out to be a big challenge.”

Floods and ecosan toilets

The floods of 2008-’09 introduced the concept of ecosan toilets in North Bihar. “During the floods, villagers were openly defecating barely 10 feet away from the drinking water handpumps,” reminisced Kumar, who was carrying out flood-relief works in Nautan block of Pashchim Champaran at that time. “We realised the need of providing sanitation facilities to the flood-affected population.”

In 2007, Kumar had attended a workshop on ecosan toilets in Khagaria district of North Bihar where sanitation experts from Bengaluru trained local Non-Governmental Organisations on ecosan toilets.

Kumar decided to implement the idea during the 2008-’09 floods.

“On a slightly raised platform, we constructed 10 makeshift ecosan toilets using two-hole pan and an empty Dalda ghee plastic container,” explained Kumar. “Faeces were collected in large Dalda ghee container whereas urine was collected separately in a large bottle using a pipe.”

After the floods, when people moved back to their villages, they dismantled the ecosan toilets and carried the materials with them to reconstruct the toilets.

The niche for ecosan toilets had thus been created.

Based on local conditions and community feedback, Megh Pyne Abhiyan designed a unique ecosan toilet called Phaydemand Shauchalay (beneficial or productive toilet), particularly meant for the flood prone areas of North Bihar.

Phaydemand Shauchalay

On an average, the faecal matter and urine one human being produces every year contains 4.6 kg nitrogen, 0.6 kg phosphorous and 1.3 kg potassium, the three main nutrients in commercial fertilisers. From these nutrients, 250 kg of rice can be produced annually, reads Megh Pyne Abhiyan’s manual on Phaydemand Shauchalay.

The basic design of a Phaydemand Shauchalay includes two specially-designed ecosan toilet pans placed above two concrete chambers, which are constructed above ground level, on a raised platform, to account for floods. Each pan has a 10-inch diameter space in the centre, which leads to the chambers below, where the faeces are collected. Sloping away from this open space are two basins at the front and back with their own drainage. The basin at the front collects urine, while the one at the back drains out the water used for cleaning.

After defecating, the user needs to sprinkle two spoons of ash or sawdust on the faeces and close the lid of the excreta hole. Not even a drop of wash water or urine should get inside the excreta chambers. This prevents insect attack, and there is absolutely no bad odour.

For the first five to six months, the family uses one chamber only. Once the first chamber is filled, it is sealed, and the fecal matter naturally decomposes into manure in three to four months. During this time, the family switches to using the second chamber for defecation. Once ready, the humanure is harvested by family members and used in the fields. The urine, which is collected in a separate container, is mixed with water and sprinkled in the fields.

“We ensure that before constructing Phaydemand Shauchalay, the community is educated about ecological sanitation and the proper use of an ecosan toilet,” said Prasad.

In order to address the threat of floods, Megh Pyne Abhiyan and Water Action carry out village-based studies to mark flood water levels of the last 10 years. “Based on the 10 years data, we decide the height of the toilet, which is always built on a raised platform to ensure flood waters do not enter the excreta chambers,” said Kumar. Local villagers have also been trained to make pre-cast standardised Phaydemand Shauchalay pans.

A young ecosan warrior

In early 2012, after securing a Bachelor of Arts degree, 21-year-old Vinita Kumari, a resident of Poorvi Tola, Rupaulia panchayat in Gaunaha block, enrolled herself with the Indira Gandhi National Open University for a Master of Arts degree via correspondence. Kumari, the fourth of five girls, also decided to take charge of her family’s farmland.

Around the same time, Kumar was regularly visiting Poorvi Tola to educate villagers about ecological sanitation. The hamlet did not have even a single toilet at the time and all the 37 households were practicing open defecation.

After a long community mobilisation programme, the construction of Phaydemand Shauchalay started in the village in April 2012. The cost of construction of one such toilet was about Rs 8,000-Rs 9,000. Water Action raised money from Public Health Engineering Department (funds and donor assistance). The balance amount of Rs 1,000-Rs 1,500 came from the user families.

While the construction of Phaydemand Shauchalay were underway, Vinita Kumari started taking a keen interest in ecosan technology. She also gave useful suggestions on toilet design to Water Action. However, convincing her own family members to construct a Phaydemand Shauchalay wasn’t easy.

“My father and his brother were against the idea of harvesting excreta and urine,” reminisced Kumari. “They thought it was a menial job. I assured them I will harvest humanure and use it in the fields.”

By December 2012, 31 Phaydemand Shauchalay were ready for use in Poorvi Tola, one of them belonged to Kumari’s family. And, on May 1, 2013, she formally joined Water Action as an ecosan warrior.

Eco-friendly and savings too

Between 2013 and 2015, Kumari and her family have harvested humanure four times – a total of 10 quintals – as well as 72 gallons of urine. “Earlier the sugarcane crop used to be yellowish in colour and wasn’t very strong,” she said. “But, after using humanure and urine, it is both tall and strong.”

For the last two years, her family has stopped buying chemical fertilisers and are saving Rs 10,000-Rs 12,000 per annum. On 17 acres of land, she organically grows wheat, paddy, corn, and sugarcane. A 2.5 acre plot is used as a kitchen garden to grow vegetables.

The entire hamlet of Poorvi Tola has benefited from the 31 Phaydemand Shauchalay, which have together generated 108 quintals of humanure and 24,900 litres of urine in two years. As against a conventional latrine that uses eight to nine litres of water per flush, Phaydemand Shauchalay requires very little wash water. Thus, Poorvi Tola is saving 2,160 litres of water every day by using these ecosan toilets.

Free pit toilets vs ecosan toilets

Early last year, Vinita started visiting Kairi village in Domath to educate the villagers about ecological sanitation. Kairi is a Tharu tribe village of 138 families, and till last year, it did not have even a single toilet.

After holding meetings with the villagers, four Tharu families decided to end open defecation and construct Phaydemand Shauchalay. By April 2015, four ecosan toilets were ready. “Earlier women and young girls in my family used to walk long distances to defecate every morning,” said Yogendra Nath, smiling. “Now they use Phaydemand Shauchalay at home. I am very happy.”

Nath’s Phaydemand Shauchalay cost a total of Rs 18,015 of which Rs 12,000 was sourced from government funds and the balance was paid by Nath himself.

However, Kumari is now finding it very difficult to convince other families in Kairi to adopt these ecosan toilets as the Government of India is providing a subsidy of Rs 12,000 per individual household latrine under the Swachh Bharat Mission.

“The village panchayats are hiring contractors and getting conventional pit latrines constructed to make a killing out of the central subsidy,” said Kumari. “Since more toilets mean more subsidy, latrines are being constructed at a rapid speed with no quality control or monitoring.”

Till April last year, there wasn’t even a single toilet in Kairi village. But, within nine months, more than 16 pit toilets were constructed under the Swachh Bharat Mission, which was launched in October 2014 to end open defecation across India by 2019. Predictably, a free toilet sells faster than one where a user family has to contribute to the cost of construction.

Another issue is that the Baseline Survey data of 2013 collected by the states, as per which free toilets are being constructed in rural households, is flawed.

“We are aware of the wrong entries in the survey,” said Bhogendra Mishra, executive engineer, Public Health Engineering Department (Bettiah), Pashchim Champaran. “Several families without a toilet have been marked as already having a toilet. But, since the data has already been forwarded to the Central government, we cannot do anything about it.”

Clearly, the Swachh Bharat Mission will fail to meet its goal of an India free of open defecation unless it promotes innovative technology built around the principles of ecological sanitation. The errors in the Baseline Survey, too, need to be addressed.

Nidhi Jamwal is a Mumbai-based freelance environment journalist. Her Twitter handle is @JamwalNidhi.