The recent shigella and salmonella poisoning cases in Kerala show the challenges the state faces in terms of unscientific rings or unlined pits masquerading as fail-proof septic tanks.

Data collection in Alappuzha for analysis of septic tanks. Photo credit: CanalpySurvey in Alappuzha for analysis of septic tanks. Photo credit: Canalpy
Voices Sanitation Tuesday, June 28, 2022 - 18:00

Last month, Kerala reported the death of a young girl due to food poisoning. Many others also took ill after eating out at restaurants, reportedly due to shigella and salmonella poisoning. It is well-documented that shigella and salmonella poisoning arises from sub-standard sanitation facilities. These infections are puzzling since Kerala has had near-universal coverage of toilets and has also been declared as an open defecation free state. So, what explains such cases of food poisoning?

While Kerala has been way ahead in terms of coverage of toilets, excreta and wastewater treatment continues to be a challenge. Over the past few years, due to several cases filed by environmental organisations in the National Green Tribunal (NGT), there is a renewed focus on the state of water bodies in the country. In August 2019, the NGT directed all local bodies to ensure treatment of sewage generated within their jurisdictions.

The directions also asked the pollution control boards and environment departments to fine local governments for failing to comply by April 2020. Consequently, several departments led by the chief secretary are currently trying to create treatment infrastructure to address the problem. Knowing the challenges of setting up waste processing facilities in the state, we acknowledge that the bureaucracy probably already has its hands full. As necessary as treatment infrastructure is to address public health and environmental pollution issues, it will not be adequate till the issue of faulty on-site systems is addressed.

Most toilets in the state are connected to on-site systems (OSS) such as septic tanks and pits. Septic tanks are water-tight systems that collect the solids and provide primary treatment to the liquid before it leaves as supernatant. Pits, on the other hand, directly disperse the liquid component into the groundwater. Since many places in Kerala have high water table, such direct dispersal contaminates the groundwater. It also contaminates surface waters through base flows in the aquifers.

Our study in Alappuzha, based on a sample of nearly 2,000 households found that most of the systems were unscientific rings or unlined pits masquerading as fail-proof septic tanks. Only a third of the systems were septic tanks. An earlier study with a smaller sample in Nedumangadu had also found the same. The 2011 census found otherwise, as whatever is built to collect and disperse wastewater from the toilet is locally referred to as a septic tank.

Septic tanks in Alappuzha. Photo credit: Canalpy
Fortunately, most officials with local governments and state agencies are aware of the challenge. This awareness has, however, not translated into any action. To our knowledge, there were no efforts to ensure that the OSS constructed under the Swachh Bharat Mission were septic tanks and not pits. There have been no attempts to make the masses aware of the issue and encourage replacement of pits with septic tanks, nor has the government announced any scheme to subsidise costs for replacement.

Finally, the Kerala Municipal Building Rules (KMBR) 2019 mandates building owners to refer to IS 2470 for septic tank design and construction. IS 2470 is the code prescribed by the Bureau of Indian Standards, which specifies recommendations for the design, layout, construction and maintenance of on-site sanitation systems. According to the KMBR, the OSS is supposed to be inspected when under construction. It is, however, only a small part of the inspection process and is often overlooked. This inaction is surprising as earlier studies by government agencies and researchers alike have also linked pollution of well waters with pits and poorly built septic tanks.

Septic tanks in Alappuzha. Photo credit: Canalpy


What then should the state do to alleviate the problem? The KMBR needs to be immediately modified to include recommendations from IS 2470 septic tanks. Further, the recommendations need to be suitably adapted for the stateā€™s peculiarity. States like Maharashtra have included extracts from the code into their municipal building rules, thereby providing designers with a ready reference. Another option is for local bodies to pass bye-laws mandating the construction of septic tanks, like Kochi did in 2016 through the septage management bye-law.

In either case, the local governments need to ascertain that the OSS constructed are septic tanks when assessing properties before issuing occupancy certificates. The existing pits can also be gradually replaced. Our survey in Alappuzha found that people are willing to bear at least a part of the cost for replacement and they are even more willing once they know that the faecal sludge when emptied will not pollute water bodies.

A detailed survey to identify inappropriate septic tanks will be needed. Local colleges and students can be involved since an opportunity to contribute to local issues, academic recognition, and use of technology such as open-source applications for surveys attracts them to participate in such exercises. Once faulty OSS are identified, businesses and households with financial resources should be encouraged to replace them on their own through incentives such as rebate in property tax for a few years. Those with no means will need subsidies. Further, low-interest credit for these households can help them meet the gap.

To conclude, sanitation is much more than access to toilets, and inadequate attention to other aspects has a significant impact on public health. However, this link is overlooked by decision-makers as well as the masses in general. It is imperative to raise awareness about the effects of sub-standard sanitation systems on the health and well-being of the population. While working to create wastewater and excreta treatment infrastructure, it is essential to also deal with inappropriate on-site systems. A multi-pronged approach as suggested here will be needed.

Kerala has a chance to showcase a proactive approach rather than a reactionary tactic which is the norm. In the long run, this will also alleviate the burden on the healthcare system and improve the quality of water bodies in the state.

Sruthi Pillai is a PhD researcher at the Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas (CTARA), IIT Bombay. An environmental engineer turned interdisciplinary researcher, her doctoral work focuses on water quality governance to understand the persistence of water pollution in the country.

Paresh Chhajed-Picha is a PhD researcher at CTARA, IIT Bombay. He is an urban planner by training and his doctoral research attempts to understand the process of and challenges in implementing sanitation interventions.

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