'Swachh Punjab' is a stinking reality

Seetha Gopalakrishnan
Tuesday, June 23, 2015 - 12:17

The state's high toilet coverage has compounded the problem of water pollution and diseases. It now needs an efficient and affordable sewage treatment system.

Authored By : Manu Moudgil

Whenever Nachatar Singh’s wife and children fall sick, he blames it on the groundwater they pull out everyday using a hand pump in his courtyard at Veere Wala Kalan village of Faridkot district. Singh swears that the problem started only recently. “The same tap used to fetch such good quality water thanks to seepage from the Gang canal which runs around 1 km from our place. It’s the toilet that was set up under a government scheme which is affecting our drinking water”, he claims.
The toilet lies near the hand pump and the water table is at 25-30 feet thus leaving little room for the wastewater to get diluted before it mingles with the groundwater.
At Ghallu village in Fazilka district, wastewater flows through open drains to a pond which spills over to the main road. “Almost everybody has a toilet at home. During the rains, the pond water floods the streets and enters homes. Children often get typhoid, and malaria outbreak is a regular event”, says a resident Mangat Ram.
These two instances offer a unique picture of Punjab, which can be a good case study for the Union government that is focussing on building new toilets under the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan scheme. With over 70 percent of toilet coverage, the state is one of the top performing states in tackling open defecation. However, in its race to be a 'toilet state', Punjab has neglected a bigger issue -- that of waste management. 
Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) are lacking
Neither does it have enough sewage treatment plants, nor the capacity to manage them. The excreta, which would earlier be distributed in agriculture fields and other open areas and decompose with time with dry environment and sunlight, now becomes more potent with addition of water in toilets. The waste is now diverted regularly to a central location like ponds or put into subsoil thus polluting surface as well as groundwater.
In urban areas, around 75 percent of the sewage flows untreated into rivers and drains as only 43 percent of its 171 towns have sewage treatment plants (STPs). Also, 24 percent of these plants are inactive for want of money. A single STP may cost Rs 30 lakh to Rs 1.2 crore depending upon the technology used with annual maintenance costs varying from Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 14 lakh.
People demand toilets
India has been struggling with open defecation mainly because of the low-level of acceptance for home-based defecation. This is why the government is funding behaviour change campaigns (BCC) across rural India. Punjab did not face such a challenge because most of the people were keen on having toilets at home. Rapid urbanisation, prosperity and exposure to western lifestyles due to a high rate of emigration, catalysed this desire.
Government schemes assisted by World Bank loans helped poor families like that of Nacchatar Singh who could not afford a toilet. The state government is now planning to cover the remaining 6.25 lakh toilet-less households in next three years. “Under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Rs 15,000 will be given for the construction of individual household toilets. Of this, Rs 6,000 will be the state's contribution with the support of the World Bank”, says Suresh Kumar, Principal Secretary, Water Supply and Sanitation. 
What do toilets give?
Since open defecation is considered a major reason for the spread of infectious diseases, one would think that Punjab has seen an improvement on the health front due to better toilet coverage. However, according to data from the Directorate of Health Services, acute diarrhoeal cases in Punjab rose from 1,62,188 in 2005 to 1,97,059 in 2012. The number of typhoid cases almost doubled from 22,444 to 42,536 during the same period. Typhoid is a bacterial disease transmitted by food or water contaminated with the faeces of an infected person.
According to Census 2011, only 41 percent of households in Punjab get treated water supply and over 24 percent still depend on hand pumps. Also, most of these would have very less space in their houses to ensure a safe distance between the toilet and the hand pump which fetches water from shallow, unconfined aquifers.
Around 70 percent of the houses with toilets in Punjab are either covered by sewers or they have septic tanks, but the effluent from most of these toilets leads into ponds or rivers and continues to be a health hazard.
“House flies can transmit contaminants from dirty ponds and drains as much as from open defecation. Proper disposal is the only answer to health hazards posed by excreta”, says microbiologist Dr Manisha Biswal from the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh.
Proper disposal of sludge remains a dream
Families with septic tanks minus sewerage connections have to get the tanks emptied of sludge every 3-4 years. This task is performed either by manual scavengers or private contractors using suction-pumps to remove and transport the sludge. However, proper disposal is still a distant dream as the sludge is invariably disposed off in drains, waterways, open land, or agricultural fields by the contractors.
The Punjab Pollution Control Board confirms that human excreta is the main source of pollution in the state’s rivers including the Beas, Ghaggar and Ravi resulting in various diseases, including typhoid, dysentery, cholera, hookworm diseases, ascariasis and viral hepatitis.
Contamination and pollution
In the Satluj, which is a river that traverses a long distance in Punjab, the concentration of faecal coliform varies from 2,800 to 40,000 per 100 ml. The Ghaggar river reaches a maximum faecal conliform level of 27,000 per 100 ml before it exits Punjab. Nitrates is one of the contaminants indicating inadequately treated sewage water, run-off, and poorly functioning septic systems. High nitrate causes growth of algae and other plants in surface water bodies, seen invariably in village ponds.
According to a 2010 report of the Central Ground Water Board, groundwater samples from 17 of the then 20 districts in Punjab were found to have nitrates more than the permissible limit of 45 mg/l going to a maximum of 1,180 mg/l at a village in Sangrur. 
Nitrates in the groundwater can also originate from the leaching of chemical fertilizers which are used abundantly in Punjab. However, a report by Greenpeace analysing the impact of fertilizer use on groundwater, found that the levels of nitrates from wells inside two villages were much higher (110.7 and 601.6 mg/l) than those in the fields (7.4 to 94.3 mg/l) where nitrogen fertilizers are used.
The report noted that high nitrate contamination of groundwater within the village is probably due to the concentration of human sewage and cattle waste. For drinking water, the permissible limit of nitrates is 45 mg/l.
Nitrate-contaminated water has been linked with 15 types of cancers, metabolic disorder, birth malformations, hypertension and spontaneous abortions in animals. The incidences of all these conditions are rising in Punjab but with little investigation into reasons and sources of contamination.
Few existing solutions
With high coverage and community demand, Punjab can’t stop building toilets which is why it is imperative that cost-effective methods of safe sewage disposal are implemented. Conventional sewage treatment plants are power intensive, have huge capital costs and add to unaffordable operation and maintenance cost. This is the reason most STPs in cities remain non-functional.
Certain villages have come up with solutions to this through efforts of wealthy NRIs, religious organisations and lately, the state government. This involves the laying of sewer lines and the conversion of existing village ponds into stabilisation units to treat sewage water through the natural action of sunlight, wind, bacteria and algae. This treatment system costs Rs 25 lakh with Rs 90,000 towards annual maintenace.
But a bigger investment is in terms of land as the requirement may go upto 3 acres. While it may not be an issue for villages that already have large ponds, others have to spare panchayat land for this purpose. Since the system does not require electrical energy, the maintenance cost comes out to be Rs 90,000 for one million litres of sewage per day.  
At Chakar village of Ludhiana, three Canadian NRIs pooled in money to improve the prevailing insanitatory conditions. Today, the village has three sets of stabilisation ponds serving separate localities. In a stabilisation-based treatment system, wastewater flows through 3-4 ponds one after another under the influence of gravity with a minimum detention time of 6-8 days. Most of the heavy solids sink to the bottom of the first pond while the remaining water flows to the second, shallower pond. Here, healthy growth of algae produces oxygen to be used by bacteria to break down organic matter.
The water further goes to the one or two maturation ponds where sunlight kills off most of the faecal bacteria and other pathogens. The water is then used for irrigation in nearby fields thus completing the cycle of consumption and reuse. Sullage can also be removed from the ponds after a few years and used in the fields as manure.
At Harar Khurd village in Amritsar district, work is on to connect toilets to the main sewer line under a World Bank- supported water supply and sanitation project. Toilets have been constructed with septic tanks that don’t allow seepage into the ground. Underground sewerage takes the solid-free wastewater to stabilisation ponds. In total, 98 villages have already been covered through the World Bank-sponsored project. However, that's only half a solution since the sludge of the individual septic tanks would need to be removed after a couple of years and there is no provision for its safe disposal.
At Bahadurpur village of Rupnagar district, villagers got together under the leadership of NRI Dilbagh Singh to set up a 4,000 feet sewer and drainage system. Earlier, the village consisting of 80 small landholder famlies was diverting sewage directly into the Satluj flowing nearby. Now three stabilisation ponds have been made on the outskirts, so the water goes through underground pipes and moves on after the sludge settles down.
All families were asked to contribute Rs 5,000 each for the development work. “Some families could not afford to donate while a few rich families gave lakhs. This helped attach value to the infrastructure”, informs Dilbagh Singh. The animal waste from village dairy farm is diverted to a centrally-located biodigester which supplies biogas to those who pay user charges of Rs 100 per month.
As inspiring as these instances may sound, they are very few and far between. In the coming years, Punjab will have a greater crisis at hand as more people shift to toilets, and sewage waste continues to pollute surface and groundwater while treatment faclities remain dysfuctional for want of funds.

This article first appeared on India Water Portal