Making shit a commodity: finding a fortune at the bottom of a leach pit

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Leach pit emptying events should not remain stand-alone activity. Forward and backward linkages in making manure a commodity bought, sold and traded in market will be very much helpful in shifting preference to leach pits and issue of partial usage can be tackled and will be surely a win-win situation for all stakeholders.

Robert Chambers, Jamie Myers and I, with our field staff, recently dug a leach pit in the Gram Panchayat Sarfonga of Raipur District following the footsteps of Secretary, Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MoDWS). One household, where the head of the family, Mr. Dhaja Ram Sahu was unaware of the treasure beneath his own land, constructed septic tank for his family costing around seventy thousand rupees; because he thought it’s easier to construct a new toilet than emptying leach pit!  When offered a price for his fertilizer he was surprised to know the value for the same. Although there is a proactive campaign going on by government, septic tank remains the choice of the common man. In reality a ‘fortune’ lies at the bottom of the leach pit and “commoditization” of human shit can be one of the ways to encourage people to construct leach pits.

Shiv-Sakti a women Self Help Group (SHG), located in Gram Panchayat Beldar Shivani, in Tilda block of Raipur District,Chhattisgarh is selling manure generated from human shit as Bihan Sona Khad, in Bihan Bazar of Raipur. (Bihaan is a Chhattisgarhi word which means dawn and is the of the Chhattisgarh State Rural Livelihood Mission. Sona Khad means manure generated from human shit). Bihaan Sona Khad is priced around fifty rupees, for a kilogram, slightly less than one US dollar, and in this way the SHGs are trying to turn “shit” into a commodity.

According to the Cambridge dictionary, the meaning of the term ‘commodity’ is ‘a substance or product that can be traded, bought, or sold.’ The best way to encourage people to construct leach pits and to use toilets is to make ‘shit’ a commodity that can be traded, sold and bought in the open market. With organic food and organic fertilizers gaining currency in recent days, shit manure can be successfully promoted.

Construction of a septic tank, though a preferred approach in India, is actually a lose-lose-lose proposition:  it’s costlier to build, it’s more time consuming and an expensive method to empty it. Partial usage of the septic tank toilet is also one of the tricky issues: to avoid filling of the septic tanks, which is seen as liability, family prefers to defecate in the open. Leach-pit technology as promoted by the Indian Government is a win-win-win situation for the all concerned stakeholders in the true sense. Using leach pit is an investment- the more shit deposited, the more generation of manure for sale. It’s actually like Systemic Investment Plan (SIP). Still, septic tanks is often desired by people due to various reasons, for example due to the ill-conceived notion of leach pits as Sarkari, ie sub-standard. A toilet is a life time investment and thus it is conceived that the bigger the tank the better it will be.  Another reason is that masons are not aware of leach pit techniques.

On 20th February, 2017 an orientation program on sanitation and CLTS was conducted by Jila Panchayat, Raipur, Chhattisgarh in collaboration with Action for Better Tomorrow (ABTS) and supported by UNICEF Chhattisgarh at Raipur and Bunch of Fools (BoF), a local NGO involved in urban sanitation. Manure recently excavated by field staff from a leach pit was shared with the participants. The participants had not been told about the type of manure. But when told about the type of manure, all the participants were surprised. Many were not hesitant to touch, smell and handle the leach pit manure. They even agreed on digging a filled leach pit in coming days and an intense activity at field level has been planned for the same.

It can be argued that turning shit-manure into commodity may be difficult. But it can be noted that a few years earlier, in Chhattisgarh, there was an immense environmental problem of fly ash generated due to power plants in Chhattisgarh, which is the power hub of India. Power plants were ready to provide fly ash for free but there were no buyers. Industries used to dump this waste at any obscure location. Later, the government of Chhattisgarh made fly ash bricks compulsory for all government buildings and also units for manufacturing of fly ash bricks were put under priority sector under Chhattisgarh Industrial Policy, so easy finance and capital subsidy was made available. The result of these policy interventions is that fly ash which was considered as waste turned to be a most sought commodity - a win-win situation for all. Similarly, the right kind of policy intervention, sustained efforts and dedicated IEC for pit emptying, perception management, forward and backward linkages, communication strategy for the behavior change, promotion of organic fertilizers can make human shit manure a commodity.

C K Prahalad, Management Guru, and author of the book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty through Profits elaborated on how MNCs can generate profits by  focusing on the needs of the Bottom of Pyramid (BoP) to create fortune for themselves and also the poor sections of society. In the same way, it can be said that, fortune lies at the bottom of a leach pit and we need to harness and exploit the great potential that is there for the betterment of humanity.

Nileshkumar Kshirsagar (IAS) is the CEO of Jila Panchayat Raipur and Sukanya Kalita Vaiphei Alumnus of Lady Shri Ram College and interested in behavior change and sanitation.

Date: 14 March 2017