To clean the Ganga from its pollution, a project to set up bio-digester toilets along its banks is underway

Standing on the banks of river Ganga, one could hear reverberations of a famous melancholic song by legendary singer Bhupen Hazarika wafting through the air. Vistaar hai apaar, praja dono paar kare hahakar. O Ganga, tum behti ho kyun? (Your expanse is immense, people on both sides are wailing inconsolably. O Ganga, why do you flow?)

Once worshipped as the ‘saviour Ganga’, harbinger of hope and purifier of souls, the mighty river is now struggling to survive and breathe freely, from the garbage and filth littered all over it.

But amidst this pall of sadness, there is a ray of hope as a silent sanitation revolution is being undertaken on the banks of Ganga to make her free from trash.

In an ambitious programme, around 5,000 zero-wastes, ‘bio-digester’ toilets would be installed in villages along the 2,500-km stretch of the Ganga basin. The project has been undertaken jointly by the Ganga Action Parivaar (GAP), Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) under the patronage of Swami Chidanand Saraswati, founder and president of Rishikesh-based Parmarth Ashram Niketan. In a unique coming together of saints, politicians, industrialists and Bollywood stars, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between GAP, FICCI and DRDO at a recently-held conference on environment conservation and world peace, signalling the launch of the programme in Rishikesh.

GAP, in collaboration with FICCI and DRDO, will attempt to free the river from the pollution and related threats to its biological diversity and environmental sustainability. “Most of the people living in the Ganga river basin have no sanitary facilities. They are forced to use the river for their ablution out of sheer necessity, fouling its water and turning it into a source for spreading diseases,” said Chidanand Saraswati.

According to the 2011 census, about 131 million households in India have no toilets on their premises, with eight million using public facilities and 123 million defecating in the open.

The river looks like a huge open cesspool in some places. A major chunk of sewage, untreated industrial effluent, run-off from chemical fertilisers and pesticides used in agriculture and huge quantities of solid waste are dumped in the river. Besides, thousands of animal carcasses and hundreds of human corpses are thrown into the river everyday, contributing to the pollution load that flows incessantly into it. But more than anything, it is the faecal matter or human waste that has become a major pollutant of the Ganga.

Former Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh had said that the government intended to rid the country of open defecation in the next 10 years. He said that the bio-toilets would also help in curbing manual scavenging which was still prevalent in about 15 lakh insanitary latrines. It may be recalled that Defence Ministry and Rural development Ministry have also signed MoUs for installing these toilets in over one lakh gram panchayats in next few years

‘Bio-digester’ toilets work by mixing self-multiplying bacteria with human waste in specially-made tanks. The technology helps turn human waste into biogas and odourless compost. The process involves tapping bacteria which feed on the faecal matter inside the bio-digester tank and degrade it for its release as methane gas. Bio-digesters combust this methane, ensuring it is not released into the atmosphere. Instead, it becomes useful as gas for cooking, lighting, heating and crop fertilisation. It is also being used as a source for rural electrification. It is a safe and hygienic on-site human waste disposal technology and has the potential to turn toilets in rural areas into an urban drainage system, which will not require handling human waste.

The eco-friendly toilet, or E-toilet, can be set up anywhere where there is no provision of sewer lines. Though it was meant for Indian combat troops deployed in Siachen, a 6,300-metre-high (20,800-feet-high) glacier in Kashmir where temperatures can fall up to minus 50 degree Celsius (minus 58 degree Fahrenheit), it is equally suitable for rail coaches, buses and highways. It is also 100 per cent maintenance-free and economically viable.

Initially, mobile bio-digester toilets, or Green Toilets, would be set up at various locations of the Kumbh Mela, where around 130 million people are expected to visit. The project will be later expanded from Har ki Paudi in Hardwar to Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath and at schools, bus stands, railway stations and taxi stands across the 2,500-km stretch of the Ganga basin.