A leap in toilet technology, courtesy DRDO, can bring about the sanitation revolution India needs.

The energetic minister for Rural Development, Jairam Ramesh, thinks India’s defence scientists, who have been praised sky-high for the launch of Agni V, should get their act together on the ground as well: They should solve the toilet problem in villages of Odisha near Dhamra port, close to the launch sites of Wheeler Island, Chandipur and Balasore.

The defence scientists have been quick to respond to the call by offering a bio-digester technology that could be deployed to fabricate eco-friendly toilets.

The tradition is already in place. Former President, and ‘missile man’ A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, for over a decade, tried hard to popularise the spin-offs of the country’s ambitious missile programme.

He often narrated the story of how composites (lightweight, corrosion-free material) used in the nose tip of Agni, are also useful in fabricating light-weight boots that provide relief to the polio-affected and accident victims.

As chief of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), he formulated at least 10 initiatives to serve the common man as spin-offs of the defence technologies under a societal mission programme. These included pacemakers, titanium implants, lightweight boots, bullet-proofing of vehicles, etc.

When Jairam Ramesh made his sharp comments in Odisha, he must have been aware of these efforts. But as Rural Development — and earlier Environment and Forests — Minister he would have seen a good part of rural India and must be alive to the woeful inadequacies and desperate need for basic amenities.

It is no secret that women in several small hamlets have to sometimes wait till sunset to answer the call of nature. It has now been decided that the Rural Development Ministry will install at least 1,000 bio digester toilets along the 90-km Jhamjhadi-Dhamra stretch in Odisha under a pilot project over the next decade.

To start with, six twin-bio digester toilets based on DRDO technology were launched in Dhamra at the end of June.

The bio-digester is a spin-off technology product developed by scientists from the DRDE, Gwalior, and Defence Research Laboratory (DRL), Tezpur, to treat biological wastes of soldiers serving in the high altitudes of Ladakh and Siachen.

Eco-friendly process

“The bio digester-based toilet has already found its way into railway coaches, tourist buses, small homes and is to be extensively set up in Lakshadweep islands over the years. It has the potential to be used in all terrains — plains, deserts and marshy lands”, said V.K. Saraswat, present chief of the DRDO.

To meet the growing demand, the DRDO has licensed the patented technology to at least 50 companies to build eco-friendly toilets that could be called E-Loos. Many of these firms are involved in the fabrication of the ‘no flush’ toilet version which, according to estimates, would cost around Rs 15,000 at present. The technology helps turn human waste into biogas and odourless compost.

The process is eco-friendly. The gas generated can be used for energy and cooking. The process involves tapping bacteria which feed on the faecal matter inside the bio digester tank and degrade it to be released as methane gas.

The DRDO says it has two categories of bio digesters; one made up of metal for soil-bound regions. The other is made up of metal, fibre re-inforced plastic (FRP) and poly urethane foam (PUF) for temperature regulation for glaciers.

While metal bio digesters maintain required temperatures by geothermal and microbial heat, temperature controlled types are heated by energy from solar photovoltaic cells.

Push from Railways

A major push to civilian application of the bio digester came from the Indian Railways. At the request of the Research Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO), Lucknow, the DRDE designed a customised toilet for railway coaches. The single toilet bio-digester has been fitted in at least eight long-distance trains.

Made of stainless steel, it is rectangular in shape and does not require any special maintenance, except routine cleaning. It has two basic chambers, one for biological and the other for chemical treatment. The combination of these two treatments results in odourless effluent for safe discharge.

According to the 2012-13 Railway Budget, 10,000 bio toilets based on the DRDO bio digester technology would be installed.

Under request from the Planning Commission, the DRDO has customised the bio-digester to treat human waste for a family of 4-6 members for the coastal areas, Union Territories and different islands.

Lakshadweep has firmed up orders to purchase 12,000 bio-toilets for the entire island population. When completed, it could become the first island/UT to adopt a sewage disposal system based on biological treatment of human waste.

Vast sections of people in a country of around 1.2 billion have no access to toilets. Sewerage systems and sanitary operations, besides safe drinking water, are woefully inadequate.

The impact of these shortfalls is a severe crisis on the health front, leading to avoidable deaths, productivity loss in people and a big dent in the country’s economy as a whole.

The DRDO has joined hands with the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) under an Accelerated Technology Assessment and Commercialisation programme to identify technologies that can be tailored to solve problems faced by the common man and involve the private sector.

Bill Gates’ role

If one looks at the history of toilets, it’s interesting to find that King Minos of ancient Crete was the first to have a flushing water closet. Variations of toilets can be found at Mohenjadaro-Harappa, at Rome and China.

However, the first patent for a flushing water closet was issued to Alexander Cummings in 1775.

Innovations in toilets got global attention recently when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation unveiled the ‘reinvent the Toilet fair’ at Microsoft’s Seattle campus.

Bill Gates’ push for designing the future loo to improve global sanitation, especially in developing countries, saw some exciting designs on display.

The winner of the $100,000 prize out of 28 designs was from the California Institute of Technology which designed a toilet based on solar power, generating hydrogen and electricity as well. The Gates Foundation has committed $370 million to its future toilet initiative and hopes to field-test the prototypes within three years.

The challenge before the DRDO and the Ministry of Rural Development led by Jairam Ramesh would be to enthuse the private sector to mass-produce these eco-friendly loos.

It will be a daunting task but well worth the challenge, if India has to emerge as a global economic powerhouse.

The DRDO can only claim modest success of its earlier spin-off technologies on a commercial scale. With a string of 50 national labs at its disposal, this innovation perhaps holds out the opportunity to win the confidence of the private sector and the public.

(This article was published on August 23, 2012)
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