‘We need more truth in our talk about sanitation’

NOTHING IS WASTE Sopan Joshi highlights the need for building a more authentic relationship with our environment  

Sopan Joshi’s “Jal Thal Mal” is a book in Hindi about the invisible connections that sustain us in our life on the planet. It shows how sanitation is not just a matter of public health but is linked to the water pollution and to the fertility of our soils. It tells us how we continuously ignore the triangular link of our excreta with our water and land.

Excerpts from an interview with the author.

Your book has an epic scale. It begins with the birth of life on Earth and goes on to the extinction of species. From microbes to blue whales. How does a book on sanitation become extensive yet integral in its approach?

During my work as a journalist, I kept running into material that could not be accommodated in the reports I wrote. The material kept accumulating over the years. That’s the trouble with researching and writing on current affairs: you can only use material that has an immediate appeal and fits into a limited context. Books, however, have a longer life. You can broaden the context in a book. I was irked that most talk of science and environment exists in the lingo of specialists – and only in English.(Just as we have cultural imperialism, we also have science and environment imperialism.)

So when ordinary people asked me questions about sanitation, about water pollution and agriculture, I found myself at a loss. I lacked the ordinary terms to talk about such matters. So, in 2011, I quit my job, joined the Gandhi Peace Foundation, and began working on a Hindi idiom to address ordinary people. That’s how this book happened.

What are the limitations of government-run sanitation projects?

There are so many. But if I had to pick one, it is the language. Our government schemes tend to oscillate between jargon and politically correct language. Combine this with a target-oriented approach, and you have a recipe for ineffectiveness. Sanitation is a social matter. Besides, the environment is all about invisible connections. Because the connections are invisible, they always get the short shrift.

So, we don’t stop and think or ask: if the plan to build a toilet for everyone succeeds, how will a water-scarce country like ours sustain so many toilets?

Did you find examples of sanitation that take into account water and soil and are environment friendly ?

Yes, there are bright examples of sensible sanitation in several parts of our country. Kolkata has the world’s most unique system of handling sewage.

Ordinary fishermen folk grow fish from the nutrients present in waste water of city’s sewage, and provide food security to the city. In Bengaluru, Arghyam, a non-profit organisation has been organising and supporting numerous efforts, from research and training, to the advocacy in this field. In Tamil Nadu, M. Spuraman of a non-profit called SCOPE, has built hundreds of urine-diverting dry toilets, which return soil nutrients back to the soil, and provide sanitation that is not wasteful of water. CDD of Bengaluru has collaborated on scores of projects in several parts of the country to install small-scale sewage treatment systems, which do not require electricity or heavy investments. These are inspiring examples, but they are not models for others to follow. Sanitation is an idea, a value system, which we must adapt to varied local conditions. It is not a pre-fabricated structure for copy and paste.

How do we address our ethical responsibility in waste management?

One, we need to accept that nothing is waste in nature. What we call waste is just the material that we cannot use. That too because we haven’t found out its use. Two, we, humans are just minor units in giant cycles of life – of soil nutrients and water – that we disregard. Just as our life-breath, oxygen, is the waste material of plants; our urine and excreta is food for microbes in the soil. Three, our problems of sanitation have more to do with an excess of facilities and resources, than with the lack of toilets. We’ve reached a stage where we don’t hesitate to name and shame those who defecate in the open but same shaming principle is not used on those who discharge untreated sewage in water bodies; on those who use clean drinking water to flush down their excreta. Now, expecting empowered, educated citizens in the cities to do something about the environment relies on the ethical burden which is not visible.

They can flush and forget. Besides, there is a limit to making this consuming class feel guilty about what they are doing and then try to inspire them to do what is right.

On the other hand, people who depend directly on their environment, establish a more authentic relation to their environment without a sense of compulsion or burden. In our talk of sanitation, perhaps, we can use a little less image building and a little more commitment to the truth.

[The book is available at: ]

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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 9:48:34 AM |

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