Trains, Plains, Automobiles, and Toilets of India

I wrote this one in five minute intervals over the past who knows how many days so when I say a day of the week or ‘yesterday’ God only knows which ‘yesterday’ it actually was.
Since my last post, I think I’ve spent a thousand hours on Indian public transportation, gotten too many sunburns, driven through more miles of countryside and endless plains, and visited hundreds of toilets. I think this is in chronological order since my last post, but the brain cells don’t remain to verify.
After the visit to the slums in Erode, we went to Coimbatore and assessed three other decentralized sanitation systems that were implemented in a slum resettlement housing colony. It was actually a bit bizarre because these communities felt almost exactly like the Erode community, just thirty years apart. I made Jayakumar ask at least six times when the systems were built because I just couldn’t believe they had been finished two years ago and only in use for the past twelve months. I would have bet my first child that the systems were at least ten years old. They all drain into a drainage canal, where ‘canal’ is quite the optimistic term, as nothing could possibly flow through that channel since it’s so full of trash and sludge. Kind of makes you wonder what the point of having treatment systems is anyway. The canal gets cleared out by a truck every once in who knows how long, and guess where the truck parks and dumps the trash it clears? Right on the concrete lid of one of the treatment systems, explaining the decade age difference in my guess vs. reality. There’s no operator or manager and the community has no idea about the systems, so it’s going to be no surprise to me when these systems are just concrete boxes full of mud and old poop in a couple of years.
My bus ride back from Coimbatore to Bangalore was nine million times more enjoyable than the one to Erode, mostly because I wasn’t dumped on the side of a highway in the middle of the night, and the bus stopped for dinner.
Some of the highlights of my time in Bangalore come from spending days in Ullalu. Everytime I go, I plan to be there for a set amount of time and have a detailed agenda and it always immediately gets turned upside down and I instead spend two hours talking about strokes and women’s health issues or hearing the gory details of a man’s struggle with diabetes while watching him pour an entire cup of sugar into my tea. The women from the self-help group are just so special and the actual hardest working women. They’re responsible for the presence of electricity and water and HIV education and meals for the elderly. They feed me chai tea and juice and mangoes, and refuse to let me pay for any of it, even though a few rupees is unnoticeable to me, and significant for them. It’s also so sweet that whenever they get up to go heat the milk for chai, they’ll ask me about Colorado and my family and remember that my sister studies monkeys in Panama. I finished (hopefully? Maybe?) my data collection in Ullalu on Friday. We went back to do some follow-up interviews, finish discussions with the photovoice participants, and I held my first focus groups for community priorities. I’m using the Analytical Hierarchy Process, that relies on pairwise comparison and a bunch of matrix math to develop an ordered and weighted list of criteria (in my case, priorities). Over the past several days of data collection, I’ve been keeping track of the priorities mentioned by each person and compiled a comprehensive list. Then, on Friday, I presented the list to a couple of focus groups of community members to confirm it included everything that they had mentioned and that they find to be important within their community. The pairwise comparison means that I go through the list of priorities and compare each one to all of the others, asking individuals to choose which priority is more important and by how much. The hope is develop a weighted list, and to compare this list to the implemented sanitation systems and methods organizations use to assess community needs to determine how effective those systems and methods are in meeting priorities.
On Monday night I took another bus back to Tamil Nadu, this time to Chennai, a large city on the coast that is home to the MIT/Stanford/Harvard of India, IIT Madras. This time, I took a sleeper bus, meaning I had a small, slightly soft platform that was about one inch longer and two inches wider than my body. Then I waited for an hour on the side of the road in Chennai to take another bus with Balaji and Aravind, two of the IIT field team members for the 4S project. This is the best picture that resulted from my attempts to document my sleeper bunk. #vulnerability.
We visited a community that had been destroyed in the 2004 tsunami (P.S. for the geographically confused, Tamil Nadu is a state in southern India on the east coast) and resettled a little bit inland. The houses in the community were built by World Vision India, and the government used the tsunami as a good excuse to build a lot of communities in Tamil Nadu toilets for the first ever time. Unfortunately, it seems that in the process of tsunami recovery, the management aspects of the systems were totally forgotten so none of them have ever had an operator.

A really struggling sanitation system.
Wednesday, our visits got cancelled, so I spent the day in Chennai. I went to the IIT Madras campus, which is a jungle paradise in the middle of a big, dirty Indian city. There are deer and monkeys just roaming all over campus, and I got to borrow a bicycle and could have ridden for hours. One of the professors who is partnering with Eawag for the 4S project and is managing the field teams from IIT also has a biodigester research project. They’ve installed small digesters in the guest houses on campus and are experimenting with different operating conditions. I’ve been hearing about this project for weeks, so it was interesting to see the systems in action. 


It took until Thursday for me to really experience the infamous Tamil Nadu heat that I’ve been hearing so much about since instead it’s been raining. I mean, it was nothing like the 51 degree high that killed several people up north, but the 40s still felt like it was going to kill me. Balaji asked me several times during the day if I was ok, probably because 90 percent of my body’s water content is now residing on my exterior. 


Thursday we went to two more tsunami resettlement communities to assess their treatment systems. These ones were my favorite so far, entirely owing to the fact that they are both right on the ocean (so not sure how this actually qualifies as ‘resettlement’) and one was right next to beautiful ruins from an old fort. I got too flustered from my increased heart rate from seeing the ocean for the first time in India to actually remember to take a real picture, so here’s the one I took hanging out the side of our auto:
One of the systems we visited was being used more to dry small fish on the top of the system than it was to treat waste. I opened one of the manhole covers for an anaerobic baffled reactor and was shocked to see a live dog sitting inside. Trying to tell community members about the dog proved to be unsuccessful, since they seemed to think that was a normal occurrence. Even though the tank was twelve feet deep, I was too scared to reach my arm down far enough to get a clear picture of the dog, you know, in case it was capable of jumping up to devour my arm.

The best part of visiting these coastal places is we’ve eaten nothing but fish and prawns (which by prawns, they actually refer to tiny baby shrimp and not large ‘prawns’) and I’m in heaven and never leaving.
Friday was a whole different adventure. Every day so far we’ve taken buses from Chennai to the communities, and often have to change buses two or three times. I don’t think we would survive without Balaji. He’s the only one who is fluent in Tamil, since he’s from there, and is exceptionally competent at bus travel in the actual middle of nowhere. I would still be paralyzed in a pile of dust and goat poop on the side of some road if he wasn’t with us. Anyway, on Friday, we were told to meet the manager of these community systems in one place, so we took a three hour train ride and a one hour bus only to find out that the systems were three hours away and he’s not actually the manager. We took two more buses to the nearest town, but by the time we arrived, it was 4 pm and going to be impossible to make it to the communities in time to do anything productive. Instead, we got Indian ice cream and then sat in a very questionable hotel room to recover from the heat. The whole day wasn’t a waste though, I was able to check “sharing a bus seat with a women and her four children who were all drinking water from plastic bags and more than happy to wipe their mango-covered hands on my legs” off my list.
Another thing I checked off the bucket list I didn’t know I had was riding an Indian train without a ticket. I had bought a ticket, but apparently it hadn’t been confirmed (which no one could tell me how you’re supposed to confirm a ticket nor was I ever notified it wasn’t confirmed until thirty seconds before boarding). Balaji and Rohan walked me through the dark slum to the train station and literally were yelling me directions and running alongside the moving train as I hung out of the door trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. I ended up sitting with the DT (not sure what that stands for but think official-looking man with all the train power) for twenty minutes while I showed him my ticket and receipt of payment and he looked on his list and told me my name wasn’t there. I was finally able to convince him to let me take a spot where someone hadn’t shown up, and when he tried to ask for full payment again, I showed him the forty rupees I had left in my wallet (real responsible traveler over here), and flashed an attractive smile that only an exhausted, sunburned, sweating white girl can do, and successfully did not have to pay to stay on the train. Climbing up to the top shelf in the sleeper car made me wish that I’d actually learned how to do pull-ups in sixth grade gym class. 
The inside of my train car, except my side had three shelves, not two.
Saturday morning I met two men from an Indian NGO that does some really excellent work in water and sanitation. Just when I was starting to almost panic that I wouldn’t be able to find enough “successful” sanitation projects, let alone good examples of communities that are interested in resources recovered from waste treatment (aka biogas that is produced when bacteria eat poop, or urine that can be used as fertilizer, or treated water for irrigation, etc.) Saturday was the golden day for all things good in the world of sanitation and my PhD.
For my followers who are also WASH fanatics, here are the glorious details:
The three communities are all near Trichy, and the first is a shared community toilet that is actually the same site that the women’s self-help group from Ullalu was taken to to learn how to operate and manage their system. It’s almost the exact same design, just slightly larger and actually functional. They produce biogas which is used for heating water for bathing and for a tea shop run by the women who manage the system. They presently have a problem with one of the biogas PVC pipes, but have an engineer coming next week to fix it (I was actually shocked to hear this, since every other system I’ve visited can’t seem to overcome any repair problems at all). The treated water then is used to irrigate a small farm that’s right behind the toilet block, also managed by the women. They grow bananas and some other local vegetables and sell them in their community, using the funds to maintain the system and pay their salaries. It’s really impressive. 

Farm irrigated with treated wastewater.
The next place we went was Musiri, where I visited four communities. One system is what they’re calling a LowMats, meaning Low Maintenance, and is a share community toilet block that has an improved septic tank (meaning multiple chambers and baffles) and a horizontal planted gravel filter, discharging the treated water to a farm nearby. LowMats as a name is a red flag though, since low maintenance in the description often means the communities assume no maintenance can pass.  

Another in Musiri is called the Resource Recovery Park and basically made my jaw drop the whole time since I had no idea that something this impressive could exist for sanitation in India. It’s an area that has a community toilet block and decentralized treatment system with biogas production, a solid waste management and separation system, a compost yard, and a farm–all for this neighborhood municipality. There are two households right next to the system that use the biogas for cooking, and the flame was impressively strong when they made us tea. The households are also the system caretakers. Then, the treated water is used to moisturize these massive windrow compost piles. The compost is a combination of the fecal sludge removed from the wastewater treatment system and the organic waste separated from household trash, and is then sold as fertilizer to local farmers. They then separate the class, rubber, plastic, clothes, etc. from the solid waste and sell those as well. The former composter in me panicked with excitement when I found out that they had vermicompost and it took all my strength not to run away from my guides to go hold the worms. Finally, the compost is also used on farmland right next to the treatment system. The entire community was noticeably clean, with no miscellaneous piles of trash on the sides of the roads, no clogged storm drains, no goats eating old tea cups. Seriously. If every town in India was modeled after this one, I would be out of work.  

The third one is another community shared toilet block with EcoSan toilets. EcoSan toilets are a type of composting toilet with twin pits, so each stall has two toilets and two pits, but only one is used at a time until the pit is full. EcoSan is something that I’ve been pretty skeptical of, since I’ve read countless articles and case studies about similar toilets implemented in China and parts of Africa that have been massively unsuccessful with major odor and usage problems. The toilet has three holes: one for urine diversion, one for fecal waste, and one for cleansing water. The urine goes to a urine collection tank and is either turned into struvite (solid form) or diluted and used in irrigation. Once one pit fills with fecal sludge and ash (that is tossed in after defecation by the user), then it is closed off and the other pit is used until full. After 8-12 months, the compost is removed and used on the farms in the community. The cleansing water goes to a planted gravel filter, and then to the adjacent field for irrigation. I was almost most impressed by the fact that this system has a regular operator who has a college degree and is there all the time to make sure the users are using the system correctly and that everything is functional. Oh, and the women’s toilet block has an incinerator for disposal of sanitary napkins.

The last place we went is a community that has 250 household toilets that each have their own treatment system. We visited a few households that have household biodigesters (fixed-dome) that codigest fecal waste, kitchen organic waste, and ~10 kgs of cow manure (most people in the community have at least one cow). One household said that they get more than five hours of biogas every day, and will share it with their neighbors since it’s so much. The other toilets we saw were EcoSan toilets (for just individual households) and then more conventional septic tanks with soak pits.
What is a blog post without a picture of an Indian cow?

Anyway, some of these communities definitely seem like they would be great case studies for my research. The trip to Tamil Nadu was supposed to only be two or three days, so I’ve become adept at living out of a 10 L backpack and washing my two t-shirts with hotel shampoo. Only five trains, endless buses, and four sanitation systems to go! I’ve loved Tamil Nadu, and even though it’s been full of more bus rides than I knew were humanly possible, I could spend forever traveling through the countryside, getting glimpses of the ocean, eating guava passed through the window, and wondering how lucky am I that I’m paid to do this.
Wow, hi, sorry for the long post, but it’s been a perfect week and I’m too excited about my latest Indian toilets.

One thought on “Trains, Plains, Automobiles, and Toilets of India

  1. Allie, is unbelievable.. everything. Your work, your effort, the situations, the knowledge and information that you are building and gathering. I’m truly amazed and – as I already told you a couple of times – curious to read and hear more carefully about your work. (Liesbet Olaerts)


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