I was brought up short the other day at the entrance to the housing complex where I live. There was a fat little cake slowly desiccating shit. It had already been there a few days.
I see open gutters everyday. Before or during the monsoon months, they are cleaned out. There are little piles of filth decorating the length of the street for days; perhaps, the somebody who was paid to clean the gutter has not been paid to carry away the filth. When it does get carried away, it must go... where? A dumpyard? A river?
All calls for a clean India have thus far been focussed on littering, sweeping of the streets and open defecation by human citizens. What doesn’t often get mentioned is open defecation by stray animals, including cows, bulls, dogs and rats.
Now, the thing is, we aren’t going to be able to get animals to use a commode, not that I can foresee. And our dear leaders have been enthusiastically pointing out the great benefits of animal potty, especially bovine — that it makes for great fertiliser, that it can be turned into cooking fuel or mixed with building material and so on. I have no argument with that. True, potty does make for great organic fertilisers. However, could it not be that fresh bovine potty also exposes humans — or other animals — to infection, just the same as human potty left lying on the streets, on beaches, and in the pretty fields of sugarcane? Conversely, is it not true that human beings are capable of generating a fair bit of fertiliser themselves? I am not an expert in faecal matter, nor agriculture. But it does seem to me that human beings are far too squeamish about properly addressing their own excrement. There was a time, scholars say, when a ‘crock of shit’ was a valuable commodity. Centuries ago, people in Asia were trading in human waste. Someone was collecting human excrement by the bucketful and selling it to farmers as manure. Europe had its night soil collectors too. Then came the era of modern indoor toilets and the flush system, and all potential manure went into the nearest river, which sadly was the population’s main water supply. That’s something to think about, isn’t it? If there’s one thing our country doesn’t lack, it is human excrement. Should we really be in such a hurry to flush it down the drain at a time when we know that it is likely to add to water pollution? Shouldn’t we also be trying to figure out alternatives that don’t involve large-scale piped sewage transportation?
Currently, most — over 70% — of India’s sewage goes untreated. Besides, there are several leaks in pipes. The recent horror of toxic froth engulfing parts of Bengaluru is also linked to the problem of millions of tonnes of sewage going into the lakes.
There is so much talk of ‘filth’ and its impact on public health. Municipalities that are quite well-funded, as Mumbai is, display filth and faeces in every suburb. But ‘open’ defecation is not the only problem. The bigger problem is that much of the waste goes into the sea, or into one of the half dozen rivers that have since ceased to flow.
Would it not make more sense for us to make good on all that human shit? If there was gold in it once, there will be gold in it again. Surely, we just have to invest a tiny bit in making technology work for us, rather than just replicating technologies fixated on the flush.
The author is a writer of essays, stories, poems and scripts for stage and screen