The political economy of defecation

  • 29/09/1992

IN MANY ways, the Ganga Action Programme is a very ambitious scheme. It aims to clean up one of the world"s longest rivers -- using sophisticated and expensive technologies. But the project does not sufficiently recognise that the Ganga flows through one of the poorest and most densely populated regions of the world.

Can the region afford such a scheme? Municipalities along the river are largely broke and the cities on its banks are growing and bursting at the seams. Urban services in these settlements are in a shoddy state and the countryside suffers from acute poverty and economic stagnation.

Under the Ganga clean-up campaign, pollution control assets are being built at a high cost. But how well will they be used, maintained and operated with discipline?

These questions have yet to be answered in detail. But the government is already planning to breed more such programmes and plans. Many state governments want such schemes, attracted not by the fact that Indian rivers are in an unholy mess and desperately need attention, but by the Central dole that river-cleaning programmes bring.

K C Sivaramakrishnan, the former director of the Ganga Action Programme, once said that the programme is mainly a programme of pumps and pipes -- a sanitary engineer"s dream. Its main thrust is the diversion of sewage, which earlier flowed directly into the river, to a treatment facility.

It is still not clear whether all the work uptil now has improved the Ganga"s water quality. Several NGOs based along the river do not think so. In Kanpur, for instance, the sewage interception scheme should have improved the water quality in the stretch of the river along the city, but it does not seem to have done so. There are constant complaints of pump breakdowns and badly aligned drains.

The first question the state governments must answer before getting any further largesse is, how will they ensure disciplined use of the assets being created? The second question they must answer is, how will they raise the resources to operate these assets properly?

State governments want funds not just for capital investment but also for running costs. Is this going to be the pattern of river clean-up programmes across the country: First, a Central subsidy to instal pipes and sewers, and then continued subsidy to keep them going! The situation seems prime for financial disaster, not ripe for replication.

The government must also consider the political economy of defecation. Modern sewerage systems are extremely expensive. As a result, investment in sewage systems mainly assists the rich to excrete in convenience. As few municipalities recover this investment, it becomes a subsidy for the rich. Now, environmental demands additionally require the sewage to be treated. And, if this treatment cost also is not recovered, it becomes yet another subsidy.

If available official figures are to be believed, the total cost of providing sewage facilities for the country"s 1991 urban population and treating the sewage, is estimated to be of the order of Rs 20,000-30,000 crore. Where on earth will this kind of investment come from? And states are also demanding funds to defray regular operating costs.

In any case, sewage systems constitute an ecologically mindless technology. Consider first the large amount of water that is used just to carry away a small quantity of human excreta. Big dams and deep tubewells are needed to bring this water home. These lead to enormous environmental problems. Then, large quantities of water that get flushed down the toilet, pollute rivers and large water bodies.

This political economy of defecation is a topic nobody talks about. But it lies at the heart of the river cleaning programme of this country. It is neither rational, just or sustainable. A proper approach would firstly demand that the polluter must pay. If the existing and planned sewer systems are only serving the rich, then the rich must pay the full costs of their ecological depredation.

There is no point in merely making statements in international meetings that the rich must pay the full ecological costs of their consumption. Those principles must also be applied at home. And, there can be no better way to make the rich appreciate this principle than by making them pay the full ecological cost of using a flush toilet. However, this is easier said than done. Municipal tax collection is full of loopholes and lacunae and the administration of cities would have to be improved substantially. The rich are more likely to use every rule in the book to avoid high toilet taxes.

The government should simulltaneously pursue another objective, that is, to find low-cost, ecologically-sound waste disposal systems that do not use water at all or use a minimum of it.

Research should be undertaken on composting toilets which do not use water. There is also a growing worldwide interest in small-scale waste treatment technologies that are built upon principles of ecological engineering, that is, engineering based on principles of ecology and biology. Ecological engineers do not consider a "waste" to be a waste. If food consumed is the source of human excreta, then these engineers would explore using the `waste" to be converted into food.

Unfortunately, not many attempts have been made in India to develop cheap composting toilets or small-scale waste disposal systems for our towns and cities. It is instructive to note that many Japanese cities do not have sewerage systems. As far as we know, India does not spend even Rs 5 crore annually on this kind of research.

Only an innovative approach can help to meet the waste disposal needs of our people and restore our rivers and water bodies to health on a sustainable basis.

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