Can We Clean Up Ourselves By Using Bio-Digest Technology?

The monitoring of the Swatch Bharat mission and the successful adoption of the bio-digester technology should be in the hands of social activists, like Magsaysay Awardee Bezwada Wilson, who have struggled all decades for a better human and natural environment.

Vithal Rajan

Many countries on the lip of environmental disaster are learning to back pedal away from old-fashioned industrialization. Germany, the European industrial giant, is focused on providing all the energy it needs from renewable sources. Oslo is turning its waste into energy. Pittsburgh has clear blue skies, undreamt off by its inhabitants a hundred years ago. There is fish in the Thames. Only India and China seem to be caught in a nineteenth century time warp of dirty skies, filthy rivers, and slum clustered urbanization.

But there is always a silver lining. While the elite of India’s scientific establishment has reveled in making missiles, space craft, and nuclear bombs, the Defence Research & Development Organisation [DRDO] has come up with a technology that could rescue citizens from filth and disease, and help clean up our messy environment as well. Indian scientists rummaging around under the Antarctic ice found a bacteria rejoicing in the name of ‘Psychrophile’ which apparently thrives on sewage. DRDO has designed a very simple sewage bio-digester, to replace septic tanks, which will be loaded with an inoculum of this bacteria refined and multiplied by bacteria existing in cowdung. The theory is that the bacteria will clean up the sewage, letting out safe, clean water that can be used for irrigating gardens. A scientific challenge has been mounted and the jury is still out on the bio-digester’s versatility and efficiency, but there is no doubt that something like a scientific break-through has been achieved, though this may still need some refining under India’s varied field conditions.

To make the technology a sewage workhorse, it requires rapid multiplication, especially in rural and peri-urban areas, and this is where we come up against India’s cultural disability to market technology to its citizens. DRDO, a scientific organization, requested FICCI to partner it for marketing the system, and FICCI in turn licensed the transfer of technology to a number of firms located in the metros. Undoubtedly many were eager to ride on the Prime Minister’s Swatch Bharat bandwagon for the photo-ops and publicity it provides, hoping to cadge large defence and other government contracts. But the problem the bio-digester is developed to tackle is not found in metros where all sewage lines are linked to  municipal sewage mains and treatment tanks. The bio-digester is meant to replace individual septic tanks of rural or peri-urban localities without municipal sewage connections. Of course, DRDO expects that the metro-based companies will go out into rural areas with a missionary zeal to propagate its technology, but this can never happen. Photo-ops are to be found in the company of ministers, not doing sewage work in remote towns and villages. To produce a ‘feel-good’ effect at DRDO and FICCI, growth charts may be shown, but exponential curves mean nothing when starting from scratch.

It is impractical to expect companies with administrative overheads to market a new and unknown technology with a low profit margin in rural areas, especially since it requires close customer relations and servicing over time. Just as it is impractical to expect the banking network, despite the hoopla over Jan Dhan, to reach out to poor rural customers. What you get is tokenism, and a ritualistic nod in the right direction.

Apart from replacing the old septic tank, the bio-digester could also be a partial solution to disease-breeding open defection in rural areas. It is now well established that the reluctance of many rural households to constructing toilets is not due to the lack of money, but rather due to the fear of ‘pollution.’ Unlike the Chinese who readily use compost produced from human night soil, Indians will not even charge gobar gas units with human refuse. If the bio-digester does not have to be cleaned out on a regular basis like septic tanks, people may very quickly opt for its construction in large numbers, since hundreds of millions of women do suffer many hardships from the lack of secure toilets.

Why does DRDO need industry licencees who cannot and will not market the technology where it is required? The licencees are no more than gatemen that create an additional hurdle in the propagation of the technology. The construction of the system is simple enough to be adopted by any building contractor, even in remote villages. All he needs is the inoculum developed by DRDO. Why cannot DRDO provide all contractors, builders, designers a ‘Toilet in a box,’ a Do It Yourself kit with the inoculum, and clear instructions for constructing the bio-digester with ordinary building materials. If a good new seed variety is produced, it takes very little time for all farmers to adopt it. The bio-digester technology if put directly into the hands of local people will spread very fast if it is found useful by people. Of course there may be mistakes in construction here and there, but these very mistakes will throw up solutions for proper standardization. The Finance Minister is responsible for the working of DRDO. As one of the key promoters of the Swatch Bharat mission, he could incentivize the spread of this useful technology with tax rebates to contractors and householders.

The monitoring of the Swatch Bharat mission and the successful adoption of the bio-digester technology should be in the hands of social activists who have struggled all decades for a better human and natural environment. The shameful practice of manual scavenging still exists all over India, enslaving whole communities. Magsaysay Award winner Bezwada Wilson has fought all his life against this evil practice and government’s studied incapacity to act for its removal. He and his organization should be in charge of monitoring the success of such schemes. The profits out of installing the DRDO bio-digester and its inoculum should by rights go to his organization and not to companies craving governmental favours.

(The writer is a reputed thinker and humanist who lives at Ketti, The Nilgiris)

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