Floods often bring poisonous snakes along with the waters of Nepal’s hilly rivers – and parts of North Bihar experience up to 60 flash floods a year. A new women-led initiative is making these threats a thing of the past.
Nidhi Jamwal is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.
Paschim Champaran, Bihar: Puneeta Devi, a resident of Kairi village in Gaunaha block of Pashchim Champaran, is in her early thirties and has braved many floods. Her village, located near the India-Nepal border in north Bihar, faces recurring flash floods every year.
Devi has predictably lost count of these natural occurrences. However, there is something distinct she remembers about the floods that marooned several districts of Bihar in August.
“This year when our village got flooded, it was the first time my 12-year-old daughter and I defecated in a toilet during the flood. Every other flood in the past, we had to walk up to a kilometre to find a safe place to squat and relieve ourselves,” Devi said, occasionally exchanging shy smiles with her young daughter, Reema Kumari, who giggled as her mother shared their experiences of maidan jana (a local term for defecation).
Defecating in the open during floods is a nightmarish experience. Floods often bring poisonous snakes along with the waters of the hilly rivers from Nepal, according to Devi. “Now that we have a Phaydemand Shauchalaya, men cannot watch us defecate. I no more feel any shame in doing what all human beings do daily,” Kumari said.
Devi invested Rs 17,410 to build her own Phaydemand Shauchalaya (or ‘beneficial toilet’). She has expected to receive Rs 12,000 from the government in subsidies. “I am convinced that Phaydemand Shauchalaya is good for me and my family, hence I did not think twice before investing my money in it,” she said. Apart from her, seven more households in Kairi village constructed Phaydemand Shauchalayas in July this year.
One of them is 80-year-old Aasiya Devi, who spent Rs 19,065 to build her Phaydemand Shauchalaya. “I have weak knees and cannot walk properly, but had to walk long distances to defecate every morning. During the floods, my condition was pitiable. Sometimes I felt I would defecate in my saree,” she said. “But now, with the Phaydemand Shauchalaya, the quality of my life has improved. I only have to walk a few steps to reach the toilet.”
The toilet is so popular that her married granddaughter, Pratima Devi, visits her house every morning to use it.
A number of rural women in other villages of Pashchim Champaran are also adopting Phaydemand Shauchalayas. It is a unique flood-resilient ecological sanitation (ecosan) toilet. It is accessible during floods as well as generates humanure – manure from human excreta – and urine that can be used in farming.
The Phaydemand Shauchalaya has also been linked to a reduction in the risk of groundwater contamination. Groundwater is the primary source of drinking water in rural Bihar.
Meet the Phaydemand Shauchalaya
Bihar has the lowest coverage of individual household toilets in the country. Only 33.16% of its population has an individual household latrine (IHHL). The rest, more than two-thirds of the state’s population, has no access to safe sanitation. The district of Pashchim Champaran, where Phaydemand Shauchalayas are slowly becoming popular, has an IHHL coverage of 30.39% only.
Apart from low sanitation coverage, Bihar is also troubled by recurring floods. More than 73% its 94,163-sq.-km area is flood-prone. The problem is particularly acute in north Bihar, where the lives of almost 76% the population – about 50 million people – are adversely impacted by the floods.
These issues are aggravated when one considers the shallow groundwater table in the area: about 2-5 metres below ground.
“Shallow groundwater table and frequent floods means high risk of groundwater contamination due to the excreta stored in the underground soak-pits of conventional toilets, which often leak,” Eklavya Prasad, a managing trustee of the Megh Pyne Abhiyan (MPA), a non-profit working on water and sanitation issues in north Bihar, told Scroll. “During floods, water enters the pit and chokes the system.” The MPA is instrumental in fine-tuning ecosan toilets and popularising the Phaydemand Shauchalaya in north Bihar.
“Before constructing a Phaydemand Shauchalaya, we educate the community about ecological sanitation, which goes beyond just building toilets. We also conduct village-level studies to mark floodwater levels [in] the last year 10 years to ensure the pan [in a] Phaydemand Shauchalaya always remains above the floodwater,” Prasad explained.
A Phaydemand Shauchalaya promotes ecological sanitation by treating excreta as a valuable and manageable resource (it contains nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium), protects and conserves water, and sanitises faecal material.
According to an MPA document, every Phaydemand Shauchalaya has two specially-designed ecosan toilet pans. Under each pan is a concrete chamber that is kept above ground, on a raised platform, so the toilet’s working is not disrupted during floods. Each pan has a 10-inch-wide hole opening into the chamber. This is where the faeces is collected. Two basins slope away from the chamber: urine collects in the one at the front; cleaning water, in the one at the back.
After defecating, one only needs to sprinkle a handful of ash mixed with neem leaves (wherever possible) on the faeces and close the lid. Keeping wash water or urine away from the faeces prevents bacterial growth and, thus, bad odour.
A family uses one chamber for five or six months. Once it is filled, it is sealed and the faeces allowed to decompose into manure in four to five months. In this time, the family switches to using the second chamber.
Once the ‘humanure’ is ready, it is collected by family members and used in the fields. The urine is collected in a separate container, mixed with water and sprinkled in the fields as well.
Vinita Kumari, a 26-year-old resident of Poorvi Tola in the Gaunaha block of Pashchim Champaran, has been using a Phaydemand Shauchalaya since early 2013.
“Within the first two years of using a Phaydemand Shauchalaya, I harvested 10 quintals of humanure and over 72 gallons of urine, and used it all in my agricultural fields to grow sugarcane, wheat, rice, corn, etc.,” she said. “My family has stopped buying chemical fertilisers and saves up to Rs 12,000 a year.” Vinita works with a local non-profit, Water Action. Her village – Poorvi Tola – has 30 such toilets. The neighbouring hamlet has three.
A women-led effort
One of the greatest benefits of a Phaydemand Shauchalaya, as narrated by the women of rural north Bihar to The Wire, is access to safe sanitation during natural calamities like floods. Several villages in the region, primarily along the India-Nepal border, face up to 60 flash floods a year.
“Whenever it rains heavily in the Terai region, hilly rivers flowing down Nepal bring flash floods to our village. The floodwater has very high velocities and it is not possible to wade through it. Thus, finding an appropriate place to defecate during the floods is a major problem,” said Leela Devi, a resident of Poorvi Tola.
Her village faced unprecedented floods on the night of August 12, leaving it desperate under three-plus feet of water. “I have never seen such a flood in my entire life. In no time, it washed away our standing crops and stored grains. Several houses were damaged, too,” Guljariya Devi, an 85-year-old resident of Poorvi Tola, recalled.
Interestingly, none of the 30 ecosan toilets in Poorvi Tola were flooded. “Since Phaydemand Shauchalayas are built on a raised platform, floodwater could not enter the pans and the chambers. The excreta remained safely packed inside the chambers,” Vinita Kumari said. The fast floodwater did break the stairs of one Phaydemand Shauchalaya, but that can be repaired easily, she added.
Naya Tola is a hamlet of around 88 households located in the Nautan block of Pashchim Champaran. Its residents are trapped between the Gandak River and its east embankment. Every year during the monsoon, the Gandak rises and floods Naya Tola. Only one Rajput family in the entire village has a toilet – a conventional latrine – built at a cost of Rs 21,000.
Early this year, MPA started to work with the residents of Naya Tola to build a flood-resilient habitat, of which the Phaydemand Shauchalayas are an integral part. “In March, we held discussions with the villagers, following which the residents were taken to Kairi village to [see] functional Phaydemand Shauchalayas,” said Kumod Kumar Das, the technical programme officer at MPA. After the visit, five families came forward to build their own ecosan toilets in Naya Tola.
Interestingly, the women of Naya Tola have taken a lead in building these toilets. As part of Jeevika, the Bihar government’s rural livelihood mission and also the implementing agency for the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan-Gramin, women self-help groups (SHGs) exist in 24 blocks in the state. Jeevika has a sanitation, health and nutrition (SHAN) fund that is made available to the women SHGs to undertake various activities, including build ecosan toilets.
These women are using both their SHG savings and the SHAN fund (Rs 8,000 per beneficiary) to construct their own Phaydemand Shauchalayas. No contractors are involved. “I cannot describe the pain we undergo during the floods. We wade through waist-level floodwater and walk long distances to find a place to defecate. Because of poor sanitation, sickness never leaves our house,” said Chhathi Devi, who was the first woman to build a Phaydemand Shauchalaya in Naya Tola. When completed, the ecosan toilet will be used by her 12 family members.
“I am part of the SHG where I deposit my monthly savings. I have taken a loan of Rs 5,000 from the SHG to build the ecosan toilet. Another Rs 12,000 subsidy should come from the state government,” she said.
The per unit cost of constructing a Phaydemand Shauchalaya in Naya Tola is estimated to be Rs 25,000-30,000. This is much higher than the cost of building one in Kairi and Poorvi Tola villages. “Naya Tola is located inside the embankment, hence faces extreme floods. For the ecosan toilet to sustain such kinds of floods, extra material is needed to build a strong foundation strong, which in turn has increased the cost,” according to Prasad.
As a support mechanism, the MPA has provided an interest-free loan of Rs 5,500 to each family of Naya Tola for building Phaydemand Shauchalayas. “Rather than giving the money, we have provided 1,000 bricks per ecosan toilet, which cost Rs 5,500. Beneficiaries are expected to return this money, which can then be offered to other families in the village to build an ecosan toilet,” said Aparna Unni, a water programme officer with the MPA.
However, despite the high cost, Naya Tola’s women aren’t complaining. “During floods, we have to take a dengi [boat] and go around looking for a place to defecate. A Phaydemand Shauchalaya is a one-time investment to put an end to our daily misery,” said Kailashi Devi. Her mother-in-law, Chanmati Devi, had visited Kairi as part of the MPA visit, after which she decided to construct the ecosan toilet for her family of 18.
At present, all five ecosan toilets at Naya Tola are under construction and are expected to be ready in the next couple of months.
Missing sustainability factor
Bihar’s rainfall patterns are in flux, and the state is expected to face both extreme floods and droughts. Cognisant of this, the state government recently allocated Rs 68,500 crore towards managing their effects. It could be missing the forest for the trees.
Under pressure to increase toilet coverage under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, state agencies are building conventional soak-pit latrines in the villages of north Bihar. The sustainability component is missing in such toilets. “Conventional toilets cannot withstand recurring floods, which is why it is crucial to work towards building a flood-resilient habitat,” said Prasad. The MPA is already collaborating with design and construction experts to create a more robust version of the Phaydemand Shauchalaya, to withstand floods of an unprecedented nature.
However, officials aren’t unaware of the benefits of ecosan toilets. “Information on ecosan toilets is available with our district authorities, who inform the local people about available technologies. But, ultimately, it is the right of the beneficiary to decide what kind of toilet he/she wants,” said Balamurugan D., the CEO and state mission director of the Bihar Rural Livelihoods Promotion Society (Jeevika). According to him, Jeevika is trying to promote ecological sanitation by training and disseminating information to its women SHGs. “I have also issued a written order to my field-level staff to support organisations like the MPA in helping villagers construct ecosan toilets,” he added.