Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Oops, urgent matter of poops

to be published in my Column 'cubes of words'  in Design Detail issue no 8

....Then I sit and wait,
Sit and wait, sit and wait
Until the poop plops down.....
(From poop song ; a  rhyme  teaching 2 something to hygienically do number 2.)

One of primary bodily pleasures is the movement of bowels and urine. Growing up into self awareness, we acquire values of cleanness and privacy, shame and taboos nurtured  by culture. Pleasures turn to pains of controls often. The problems of privacy, hygiene and safe disposal of the discharges lest they transform into sources of pollution, diseases and sensuous discomfort is a collective concerns of any ‘modern’  society.

Latrines, toilets, water closets for use in privacy along with the sewerage system had become a sign of modernity by last century.  Yet over half of India does it in the open. They do not have access to even a rudimentary one.  A small section of Indians have luxury of ‘glamour rooms’ to do the job. Ironically more Indians use telephones and mobile phones than toilets according to 2011 census.   The poop and pee and their putrefying stench seem to define our existential reality and philosophical detachment to the environment.

 Most of us cannot stand the stench of it, yet we have live that ‘aroma of discomforting air’ hovering in many pockets our cities; our trains, railway stations and the bus stands  exuding a distinguishing pungent presence.  Many sidewalks of roads exhibit human excreta and filth.  So are our public spaces, and public toilets in public buildings are apologies of squalor.  Underground sewerage system is known only to a part of urban India; even so in larger cities. Small towns and medium sized towns are still to live with open drains and the pungent stench.  Manual scavenging was banned in 1966, yet it exists in many places. This dehumanising practice has been a basis of the social divide.  In the march towards a higher urbanised India of smart cities, sanitation poses a significant conundrum;  how the other half poops? It is a question of dignity as well as status. Open or private, pit or potty, local or western, yuk or glamour, evil or showpiece: defecation divide is real and crucial.

The question is not one of economics and technology alone. There is more to it, of sociology, psychology, concepts of hygiene and cleanliness, taboos and superstitions. A major international conference on sanitation last February at Delhi heard a call for including sociology of sanitation as a subject in schools and colleges. We sanitise even the problem. The conference talked of sanitation and used that word more often while it was denoting  defecation and the processing of ‘poo” and pee; called faeces or night soil or sewage more affectionately.  Even sex is more openly discussed than the shitty affair. Even those ‘decent Indians’ living luxuriously have great problems in reconciling the issue of toilets and their location. Attitude varies from that of a necessary evil to a vain showpiece those conflicts with concepts of cleanliness, purity or profanity and mundane personal hygiene. An objective attitude is rare.  Why that is no discipline has done a serious scholarly study of the history and sociology and behavioural aspects of defecation. Have any?

Prof. Alexander Kira of Cornel University is one who made an exhaustive and scholarly study of bath rooms in 1960s. His book,  the bath rooms,  a best seller in 1966 looks at the history and design of bath rooms and accessories ergonomically, largely from the US and Western perspective. He pointed out that squatting is the best position for bowel movement which only Indians and other Asians practice. This, it seems, prevents haemorrhoids somewhat. The horizontal thigh position constricts the rectum hindering easy bowel movement. So he proposed a semi squat commode design though unsuccessful with market. Similar designs were also tried by Le Corbusier and others. The Western closet has become a fashionable habit for its appeal to lethargic stiffer bodies. Studies also show that use of tissue paper does not clean effectively and about half of respondents had residual faecal matter in their briefs.

Studies by Prof. Kira
In fact all the new products seem to complicate things and designed to improve looks and increase size and feel of luxury and hardly to improve the ergonomics. The imported products and designs of even of green claims (waterless urinals and water saving flushes etc) do not take the Indian habits, sociology, physiology and psychology into the design. The Indian quantities of bowels are generally said to be larger than in others and the low water discharges do not always flush fully in one go always resulting in inefficiency. The Indian pan and the Asian pan have very little room for improvement and the market for it also in the lower luxury segments that make it unworthy of any investment in design innovation.

 Studies by Corbu & Garnier                          Approach to design by Prof. Kira

Manual scavenging widely practiced earlier had put the excreta to use as manure in some places like china and Japan and England. With water carriage system expanding, scavenging and dry latrines, even chemical ones, weaned ending all researches on that line. The shortage of water for carrying it away is looming large. Most of our urban water is consumed for washing, flushing etc and finally ends up in the sewers. Will we use dry latrines and processed poop as manure again?

 Sulabh International of Bindeswar Pathak builds low cost toilets for about Rs 5000. They also reach and maintain low cost toilets in many public places making a low profit business out of it and prove that it is economically viable. But why does not it d get replicated?   Peepoo and Ecosan are other groups which developed disposable kits that self sanitise itself and is comparatively cheap and easy to use. These initiatives to be replicated in large scale require cooperative movements that can generate employment as well. A clean India revolution?   It is demonstrated that the quantity human urine produced in India, would provide for all the urea needed for our agriculture. The urea factories may then close down. But except for some enthusiasts in isolated cases, this is not explored.  So also is the case with night soil as manure. It is possible to do that hygienically if enough research and education is followed up.  Why no management studies in this area?