India has undeniably struggled with sanitation. Our institutions and programs continue to be eluded by the primary objective of improving sanitation systems: the public’s health.

As part of a small non-profit water and sanitation organization in Bengaluru, I was part of an interesting, and rather atypical, project being piloted in four urban centers around the world. Instead of focusing solely on infrastructure solutions for sanitation challenges (as we tend to see in India), the project looked at sanitation from a health perspective to understand current practices and give equal importance to simple things, like handwashing habits. The main premise was this: Can a town understand the health risks posed by its current sanitation system, identify who is most affected by the health risks, and then approach sanitation improvement as mitigating these risks?

My role in the project took me to a town just on the outskirts of the megacity of Bengaluru in South India, where I was to help the towns’ officials take this approach to sanitation improvement. While this urban center was small by Indian standards (pop. 30,000), it is a town on the brink of major development. Currently though, its peri-urban placement meant that citizens still practice a lot of urban agriculture and so provided a look at how wastewater was used for these purposes. I accompanied the Town Municipal Corporation (TMC)’s environmental engineer and two health inspectors – perhaps the three most critical foot soldiers in the TMC and all women – to speak with some of the town’s farmers, street vendors, hoteliers, doctors, teachers, public toilet operators, sanitary workers, and elected representatives.

Going in we already knew that this town was completely dependent on deep groundwater and that borewells in the region had reached a significant depth of 1200 feet. We also knew that they had no piped sewerage systems and wastewater and excrement flowed freely in its storm water drains. The wastewater is intercepted, diverted, and used for irrigation by farmers who otherwise struggle in a water-starved landscape.

However, our conversations revealed that health risk barriers were socially and culturally built into existing systems. Farmers had a sort of informal protocol for protecting their products when using wastewater for irrigation, including what crops could be irrigated with it and different ways to apply fertilizer. There was also a general consciousness that crops that didn’t directly touch the wastewater were safer, while root crops needed to be washed in fresh, clean water before being sent to the market. In fact, this town had become known a vegetable washing center for the region. Other farmers from around the area would bring their vegetables to be washed and packed before being sold. Farmers were also conscious about their personal hygiene habits: after a day’s work, especially when working with wastewater, they stressed the importance of a good bath.

We also found that a combination of ingenuity and necessity had solved at least part of the town’s fecal sludge dumping challenge. The municipality has a vacuum suction truck for pit latrine emptying services and private trucks are available for residential services. However, the TMC had not worked out a system for safely disposing the sludge after it’s collected – they just left it up to the truck driver. So the municipal truck driver worked out a deal with his uncle, who had farms in the same town, to be the happy recipient of his dump. The uncle didn’t just let the sludge dump directly on his crops, but composted it for at least six months before using it as fertilizer. He actually told us that fecal sludge had always been used as a fertilizer on his farms – his grandfather used it.


The municipality provides pit emptying services by operating a vacuum suction truck
The municipality’s vacuum truck emptying a septic at a resident’s home. Photograph: Samyuktha Varma
The municipality provides pit emptying services by operating a vacuum suction truck
The truck empties its contents into a farmer’s compost pit. Photograph: Samyuktha Varma

During the course of the project, I also witnessed how these informal solutions come about. One of the town’s biggest problems was solid waste clogged storm drains trapping and stagnating sewage. The town suffers from a lack of land for landfills and the TMC struggled with ways to deal with solid waste disposal (as is common across the country) and the health risks it poses. The TMC discussed this issue with the farmer and he very quickly agreed to take part of the town’s solid waste and co-compost it with the fecal sludge from the vacuum trucks. The town’s weekly market waste (which was almost wholly organic) was redirected to this farm and added to his fertilizer yield.

And so through these conversations, I observed unexpected solutions emerging out of informal conversations. Low cost, socially embedded solutions.

And so through these conversations, I observed unexpected solutions emerging out of informal conversations. Low cost, socially embedded solutions. Solutions that solved many problems: that of sanitation, waste management, and environmental impact. Solutions that achieved safe recovery and reuse of waste as a resource. They also came from within the community, which the development sector likes to tout that it encourages. The interviews established by the project led to real conversations and effectively created public-private partnerships, even if unofficial. Of course they weren’t perfect. Of course they could benefit from science and technical inputs. Of course there is a need to strengthen them and make them more robust and safe for the future as the town grows. But they were a pretty exciting start.

The challenge now is to make sure these conversations can continue within the system. The problem is that there isn’t room for them. I’m left wondering how India’s Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) can internalize the importance of conversations as a social space for consultative problem solving. How can the system recognize the importance of the informal response without killing its responsiveness? And how will the SBM, with all its targets, learn to listen to women like the committed TMC officers I worked with to learn what’s actually happening in their communities?

I’m left wondering how India’s Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) can internalize the importance of conversations as a social space for consultative problem solving.

It isn’t just the SBM that can learn from these lessons in listening. It’s also the private philanthropic sector. With all that we gained from this project in understanding successful informal systems of sanitation through low cost multi-stakeholder approaches, the town is now serving as a test case for a fecal sludge solution that’s completely technical, centralized and capital intensive. As we speak, a large international donor is working along with a large sanitation organization to test out technology to treat the town’s fecal sludge. Of course, this is great in theory – fecal sludge management is going to be the next big challenge in India, especially if SBM meets all its toilet goals. However, this complete reliance on a technological solution does not appreciate the value of the informal systems that evolved organically and addressed many of the town’s needs.

In my work, I’ve observed the common response of the professionalized development sector seems to instinctively mistrust the informal sector’s response to deal with problems – it becomes something to be regulated, something that’s unscientific. For example, the informal way of dealing with fecal sludge is invariably seen as a public health threat, not as something we can work with and make safer than it is today. To me though, the informal solution is a social response to problems we face as a society. Unburdened by the angst and alarmism that comes from formal development sector thinking, we can rediscover listening. Because what I saw in this project above all is that the informal space can teach us how to hear one another and cooperate.