The Millennium Development Goals, which were launched with much fanfare in the beginning of the millennium, were meant to be reached by the end of 2015. Even a cursory glance at the report card will show that India’s performance has been far from satisfactory. Interestingly, just before the MDG time frame came to an end, the Government of India lunched the Swachh Bharat Mission in 2014 aimed at making the country Open Defecation Free by 2019. While this programme has gained immense momentum in the last few years and continues to do so, it is important to note that the agenda has not gone beyond building toilets.

Just as in the case of many low and middle income countries, onsite sanitation systems are predominant in India. Toilets need containment structures such as septic tanks and twin pits that are scientifically constructed. Moreover, these containment structures need to be desludged regularly and the sludge has to be treated before being disposed. While an emerging market has made way for private operators to desludge the septic tanks and twin pits for a price, the story does not end there.

Have you ever wondered where the septage from the septic tank and twin pits is dumped ? More often than not, this septage is disposed of into water bodies or in open grounds thereby polluting the environment. Another convenient option is farm land, thanks to the popular perception that septage has high nutrient value and is beneficial to crops. Moreover, the water content in the septage also compensates for the increasing water shortage.
Recently, my colleagues and I went to a nearby town panchayat to interact with farmers who use raw septage as manure, and to understand the rationale behind this practice. Though it was a hot summer day, the cool breeze from the farms around made our expedition rather pleasant. The whole area was lush green, covered with a variety of crops. There was a strong aroma of fresh milk from the dairy nearby. Brushing aside the nostalgia that I felt for my hometown, I began my work by talking to the farmers who were working in their farms. “What are the crops you grow? How do you deal with the increasing water shortage? Has climate change impacted productivity,” we wanted to know. The farmers were very vocal in their responses and we hurriedly wrote down everything they were saying.

It was then that I saw Mr Muthusamy. He looked somewhere about 50 years old. He had a tired look about him. He was either exhausted from working in the fields or was just unwell. He, however, was eager to talk to us, and we made our way to where he was lying down on his rope cot. Mr Muthusamy began talking to us about the good old days when farming was easy, climate more predictable and water was plenty. He said that though his borewell had enough water even to this day, he just like the other farmers had begun applying raw septage to his fields to save water. “But, we have stopped that practice in the last couple of years,” he said.

This naturally aroused our curiosity. We wanted to know the reason why Mr Muthusamy, unlike others, had suddenly stopped using readily available raw septage. “It smells a lot,” he said. “We cannot work on the land for at least three to four days after applying septage.” This reply did not satisfy us. There was nothing new about the stench. So why had Mr Muthusamy stopped using raw septage in his farm?

A bit of prodding brought out the answer. “Using raw septage has led to the proliferation of visha poondu,” he said. “This plant is hindering the growth of crops and has led to decreasing yield.” “Can you show us some visha poondu?,” we asked him. We wanted to know what this plant looked like. An half-hour’s walk into the field revealed that visha poondu was nothing but the parthenium weed.

“When there were a few plants around, we used to remove them manually, but now there seems to be an infestation of the weed. We are scared because people seem to be falling ill with different kinds of allergies,” he said.

Parthenium, (Parthenium hysterophorus) is a noxious invasive species, which is considered to be one of the worst weeds currently known. This is a weed of global significance responsible for severe human and animal health issues, such as dermatitis, asthma and bronchitis, and agricultural losses besides creating a great problem for biodiversity (Holm et al., 1997).

Mr Muthusamy was now in a talkative mood. “We have other issues too,” he said. “Whenever we work in the fields where septage has been freshly applied, we end up getting skin infections on our feet. As farmers, we consider our crops to be auspicious and we don’t wear footwear when we are in our fields. So each time we go to a field where raw septage has been freshly applied, a few of us end up with skin allergies,” he explained.
After a long conversation with Mr Muthusamy, we turned to leave.

As we were leaving, his wife, who was listening to the entire conversation quietly, asked us. “Can you do something about the septage? Add some chemicals to it, so that it becomes safe for us to use it?”

It looked like the importance of treatment had reached Muthusamy’s farm.

Holm, J. Doll, E. Holm, J. V. Pancho, and J. P. Herberger, World Weeds: Natural Histories and Distribution, John Wiley & Sons, New York, NY, USA, 1997.

Vinitha Murukesan

Environment and Sanitation Analyst, TNUSSP