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Progressing towards Swachh Bharat: Addressing Sanitation Challenges in India

Poor sanitation is responsible for 62 million children under 5 years being stunted not able to reach their full physical or mental potential, says an UNICEF report on Indian sanitation.

The Hon’able Prime Minister’s Swachh Bharat initiative has given impetus for creating innovative solutions to the pressing sanitation problems and challenges faced by our countrymen. The Department of Biotechnology has undertaken multiple initiatives like supporting bio-toilet technologies and addressing different aspects of the waste collection and management process through reinvent the toilet challenge initiative and also by set up bio-toilets in schools in the North East.

Reinvent the Toilet Challenge India: A Grand Challenges India Initiative
Reinvent the Toilet Challenge India or as it is better known, RTTC India was a call launched in 2013 by the Grand Challenges India framework, jointly funded by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The program is managed by the Programme Management Unit at BIRAC (PMU-BIRAC). The overall aim of this call was to provide funding to encourage Indian innovation and R&D in the area of hygiene and sanitation, in line with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan of the Government of India.etoilet_ss

Given the urgent need for increased availability and access to adequate sanitation facilities in India, where official figures show that nearly 70 percent of households do not have access to a toilet, the main thrust of this call was to focus on stand-alone and sustainable toilet and sanitation technologies that do not require to be connected to a larger sewerage system. The call was also targeted specifically for the Indian context, where economic and social challenges require innovative solutions that are tailored for the people of the country.

The call resulted in five projects being fully funded, with both Indian and international collaborators. Each of the selected projects addressed different aspects of the waste collection and management process.

  • Eco-toilet
    The Eco-toilet project of Pradin technologies Pvt. Ltd. in Bangalore focuses on redefining aspects of the conventional toilet system – redesigning the toilet seat, with the aim of making the entire process more eco-friendly by using ultrasound to dispose and settle fecal matter, thus reducing water use in this stage. The aim is also to redesign the waste treatment tank system, for using ultrasound to enhance the settling of fecal particles. The project is almost completed and the team is looking to scale-up the intervention.
  • Off-grid, self-sustained, modular, electronic toilet for slums
    Field testing of off-grid, self-sustained, modular, electronic toilet for slums, with solar energy for Indian weather and integrated with mixed waste processing unit, with water, energy/ fertilizer recovery was supported by BIRAC.

    This project, undertaken by Eram Scientific Solutions, Kerala, in collaboration with the University of South Florida, USA, aims to develop and demonstrate an innovative sanitation and resource recovery solution for the slum areas in India. The first objective is to design and implement a novel public sanitation platform that meets the specific needs of slums through new designs in Eram’s e-Toilet. The second objective is to demonstrate closed-loop resource recovery by integrating the slum e-Toilet with a novel onsite wastewater treatment and recovery solution termed The NEWgeneratorTM. Combining an anaerobic membrane bioreactor (AnMBR) and solar (PV and thermal) technologies, the NEWgeneratorTM will allow for localized recovery of nutrients, energy and water from human wastes. This is accomplished by fully treating and recycling the flush water through the combined biological and membrane treatment system and by recovering energy in the form of biogas from anaerobic degradation. This off-grid and modular treatment system enables the combined e-toilet/NEWgeneratorTM system to be rapidly deployed to high-density urban areas as well as areas suffering from water scarcity and low-electrical grid connectivity.

    The team has now set up a fully functional combined unit of the e-Toilet and the NEWgenerator TM and are currently in the process of collecting data on the use and testing water quality of the NEWgenerator TM.

  • Viral agents, microbial fuel cell & effective recycling strategy for human waste disposal
    Use of viral agents, microbial fuel cell and effective recycling strategy to improve the economics of human waste disposal was an idea developed by the School of Biotechnology, Amrita University is a proof-of-concept for using viral agents to target and kill pathogens and odour-producing bacteria in faecal waste and also develop ways to integrate this into waste treatment systems.

    The team has created a phage library of more than 30 phage stocks against different targets and is conducting extensive laboratory studies. They have also initiated field studies and are looking to optimize vital parameters.

  • Hygienic Water-free toilet
    This project from the institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai, aims to use granular material to receive and dispose of fecal matter in a toilet, thereby avoiding the need for water in this process. The project aims to redesign the conventional toilet to use a bed of granular material in place of water that will ensure that there is no fecal staining of the system, fecal matter is cut-off from vectors, does not contaminate surface waters and that the user is always presented with a fresh, clean and dry surface. One of the potential applications for this kind of system, is that it could be used in urban or rural systems where is there is a cultural or social disinclination to use a conventional system as users are used to defecating in the open. The use of the granular material could mimic open defecation, while safely disposing of the waste, which could increase acceptability of these systems. The initial prototype of the design has been developed and is undergoing extensive testing.
  • Empowered septic tank as decentralized wastewater treatment system
    This project by the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani Goa campus, aims to develop a financially affordable and simple-to-operate decentralized wastewater treatment system for a single household as well as for a gated community of 100 people equivalent (25 families) that will produce high quality effluent for safe disposal. The waste treatment system will involve the bio-electrolysis of wastewater to reduce its Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD) and odor. The project has constructed and is currently testing the decentralized wastewater treatment system for a community of 100 people equivalent and will undertake extensive testing of effluent.

Bio-toilets in Schools in North East India
DBT is working with ‘The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI)’, North-Eastern Regional Centre, Guwahati, for installation of 100 bio-toilets in schools in north eastern region of India. BIRAC is managing the entire project, which is aiming at phase wise installation of 100 toilets and exploring the scale-up option for indigenously available technologies such as bio-digester technology.

The shortlisting of schools in the 7 states has been completed, covering both public and private schools including residential schools. The installation of digesters will start by December 2016 and data collection from the digesters will start by January 2017. It has been ensured that the effluent quality at all levels would adhere to CPCB standards.

The efforts of Government Initiatives have started reaping results as a UN report in July 2015 states that India has reduced open defecation by 31%. The report has emphasized that India is among the 16 countries that have reduced open defecation rates by at least 25 percentage points.

This can be contrasted with the India Human Development Report 2011, brought out by Institute of Applied Manpower Research of the Planning Commission which pointed out that about half of Indian households lacked access to sanitation facilities in 2008 – 2009. More than 60 per cent of households in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand are without toilets and there are greater chances of open defection.