New Delhi: In May 2018, Akshay Kumar and Bhumi Pednekar starred in an ad for the Swachh Bharat Mission about twin pit latrines. The ad said that decomposed fecal matter was in fact “gold”.
The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation says the twin pit technology was invented in India and the government’s Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) recommends this model for latrine construction.
However, most households in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh prefer to build “single pit latrines” and “containment chambers” rather than the more effective and sustainable “twin pit” model, according to a new survey by independent researchers.
The World Health Organisation and the SBM recommend the twin pit model as it allows fecal matter to be cleared safely and sustainably.
If more households use this design of latrines, it would reduce the presence of manual scavengers risking their lives and dignity while physically clearing the pits.
In the twin pit model, fecal matter from the first pit decomposes while the other pit can be used. The decomposed feces from the first pit can then be cleared out in a less hazardous manner.
For a family of six, it is estimated that a standard twin pit will take roughly five years to fill up with fecal matter. It decomposes in six months to a year. This is then safe to use as compost.
But single pit latrines do not allow for this decomposition or safe removal.
Containment chambers are so large that they need to be emptied by a suction machine while the feces is fresh, and then disposed at a treatment plant. The entire procedure is expensive and there are not enough sewage treatment plants available. Often, fecal matter is disposed unsafely.
These finding were revealed in recent survey by the RICE Institute and Accountability Initiative
The survey covered nearly 10,000 people across these four states in 2018. The researchers also re-visited many of the families who were surveyed in 2014. The study is titled ‘Changes in open defecation in rural north India: 2014 to 2018’.
Twin pits popular where government support is available
Among all the models, twin pit construction had the lowest uptake in households which had a latrine.
On average, 25% of households surveyed opted for twin pits: 16% in Bihar, 22% in Madhya Pradesh, 7% in Rajasthan and 35% in Uttar Pradesh.
On average, single pit construction was the most popular (40%), followed by containment chambers (31%).
However, the prevalence of twin pits changed in households which received government support for building their latrine. In this case, twin pits was the most spotted model at 42% on average, across all the four states. Single pits was still second with 34% and containment chambers stood at 21%.”
“A common finding across states is that only a minority of latrine-owning households have a twin pit latrine. However, government-supported latrines were more likely to be twin pit latrines than latrines that were not government-supported,” says the study.
Uttar Pradesh tops twin pit construction
Overall and in households that used government support to build latrines, Uttar Pradesh tops all the four states in terms of twin pit latrine construction.
In fact, in households that received government aid, an impressive 61% of houses in UP constructed twin pits. The other three states lag far behind. Bihar was at 33%, Madhya Pradesh at 32% and Rajasthan at 11%.
The researchers put Uttar Pradesh’s high twin pit construction down to the state government’s subsidy of Rs 12,000, which is made conditional to constructing only twin pits and not any other model. This does not exist in the other three states.
Twin pits and manual scavenging
As long as households remain unconvinced about or unmotivated to construct twin pit latrines, the risky work of manual scavenging (performed largely by Dalits) is likely to continue.
The researchers note, “A wide literature now documents the roots of rural north India’s open defecation in casteism and untouchability, and especially in the implications of these social ideas for latrine pit emptying and use.”
As The Wire has reported, marginalised communities of Dalits and Adivasis are also the most likely to face coercion to stop open defecation.
The presence of open defecation, the absence of state support to construct safe latrines and lack of enthusiasm to adopt twin pit latrines works to penalise these marginalised communities in multiple ways.
The paper says that India’s developing sanitation policy should factor in these social ideas as well. “The next rural sanitation policy for north India could choose a different course.”