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During the last few years, the aftermath of the northeast monsoon has left several parts of Tamil Nadu waterlogged, effectively evicting lakhs of poor people from their homes, forcing them to move out, desperately seeking assistance from the governments and other agencies.

Ironically, Tamil Nadu has a rich heritage in water conservation systems that have served as models all over the world. Stream or river-fed storage structures, sometimes built in a series, with overflow from one becoming the inflow for subsequent ones were created and nurtured by local communities. These structures are called ‘system tanks’ in Tamil Nadu and have been used since ancient times.

Over the years, specially post Independence, Tamil Nadu has emerged as the state with the highest level of urbanisation, with about 54% of the people living in urban areas.  However, these areas lack adequate basic civil infrastructure and services.

Recognising this demographic shift, Tamil Nadu was the first state to have a State Water Policy as early as 1994, and regulatory bodies like the Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage Board (TWAD) /Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB) for efficient water resource management.

However, the policy focus of governments, regulatory authorities, public representatives, and other stakeholders apart from the public was diluted steadily over a period eroding the ownership, responsibilities, and accountability of local communities at all levels.  While technologies implemented for the treatment of wastewater have become obsolete, policies continue to push outdated, inefficient techniques and methods for wastewater treatment.

Tamil Nadu has emerged as the state with the highest level of urbanisation, with about 54% of the people living in urban areas.  However, these areas lack adequate basic civil infrastructure and services

Inadequate treatment

  • According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) Report on “National Inventory of Sewage Treatment Plants -2021”, in Tamil Nadu, a total of 6,421 MLD of sewage wastewater is generated every day. The total installed capacity for treatment of such sewage is just 1,492 MLD (23.23%), a gap of 4,929 MLD (76.77%).
  • Further, only 995 MLD or 15% of sewage wastewater is actually treated through Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) which are operated using outdated technologies and thus generate harmful rejects in the processing system in the form of sludge.
  • At the national level, only 28% of sewage wastewater is treated in India.
  • According to the Swachhta Status Report 2016, in Tamil Nadu,3% of villages dispose of sewage wastewater in open areas, 23.4% of villages dispose of sewage into ponds, 18% in open drains (odais/streams), 7.3% in rivers, 4.6% other modes.
  • The national level situation is much worse; in India, 44.4% of sewage is disposed in open areas, 15.8% in ponds, 24% in nala or drains, 6.8% in rivers, and 9% via other modes,

In an industrialised and urbanised state like Tamil Nadu, without a scientific disposal system, the sewage and wastewater from conventional septic tanks are let out into open drains, roads, open grounds, leading to contamination of groundwater, rivers, and streams, resulting in poor sanitation,  pollution, and deadly diseases like diarrhoea, cholera, typhoid, and rotavirus.

Also Read: Legacy of delays hampers biomining, reclamation of waste dumps

The governance eco-system in Tamil Nadu gets some policies right at times with voices of different stakeholders like NGOs, village panchayats, academic institutions, etc. Tamil Nadu was the first state to have a comprehensive policy of Tamil Nadu Septage Management Operative Guidelines, 2014 in the country.

Further, taking the salient features of the “National Policy on Faecal Sludge and Septage Management (FSSM)-2017” of the Union Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India, the Department of Municipal Administration and Water Supply, Tamil Nadu issued a new “Operative Guidelines for Septage Management for Local Bodies in Tamil Nadu-2020” with penalties for violation of Bye-laws for letting out sewage wastewater without proper scientific system.

According to the NITI Aayog’s Report on the “Faecal Sludge and Septage Management in Urban Areas: Service and Business models-2021”:

  • In urban areas of Tamil Nadu, about 70% of households depend on various types of on-site sanitation systems (OSS) like septic tanks and pits (NSSO Survey Report, 2017)
  • The NSSO Survey found that in Tamil Nadu most of the existing OSSs are constructed following non-standard or outdated practices.
  • Further, the NITI Aayog report highlighted that the OSS system in Tamil Nadu has several issues like non-standard construction, operation, and maintenance, non-adherence to standards due to limitations of space and budget, design standards not updated to meet current needs, and institutional challenges.

Unchecked disposal
Tamil Nadu has over 9,000 private desludging operators (Sewage/septage tanker lorries) to service the septic tanks prevalent in its urban areas. However, there are no rule/guidelines on how and where this waste water is disposed off; no one knows where these operators dump the sewage. One solution to this rampant pollution is for local bodies to fix GPS trackers on every tanker to monitor the transportation and disposal of sewage.

The Department of Municipal Administration & Water Supply (MA.3), of Tamil Nadu had issued a G.O (MS) No.106 dated 01.09.2014 to all local bodies for implementation of “Septage Management- Operative Guidelines for Septage Management for Urban and Rural Local Bodies in Tamil Nadu-2014”.  This was followed up by new and revised Guidelines issued in 2020, providing directions for all local bodies and administrations (like city corporations, municipalities, and town panchayats) to undertake investigations and levy penalties on owners, occupiers or operators violating the guidelines.

The local body authority is empowered to take cognizance of any violation and issue a Show Cause Notice and levy a penalty on Owner / Occupier: Rs. 5,000 in the first instance upto Rs. 25,000; and for Operator: Rs. 50,000 and upto Rs. 2,00,000 including cancellation of license

However, the local bodies have shown little enthusiasm in implementing the guidelines leading to extensive air and water pollution in peri-urban areas across the state. While the aspirational population is keen on being part of the urban revolution, they are unable to push for the basic amenities from urban local bodies.

It is imperative to create awareness among these groups for alternative solutions to wastewater management and conventional septic tanks through modern technologies which are indigenous and sustainable.

Tamil Nadu has over 9,000 private desludging operators (Sewage/septage tanker lorries) to service the septic tanks prevalent in its urban areas. However, there are no rule/guidelines on how and where this waste water is disposed off; no one knows where these operators dump the sewage

DRDO solution inspired by Kalam
Among the technologies implemented in India is one promoted by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), — the Biodigester Septic Tank Technology, spurred by former President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam when he was Chairman of DRDO from 1992-97. Deployed first successfully at the DRDO Bhavan in Delhi in 1997 and subsequently in the defence sector and the railways, this technology has several advantages:

  • The DRDO’s BioDigesters Septic Tank functions in an anaerobic method (without oxygen) and all toilet wastewater gets digested and clean water is produced for gardening and groundwater recharge.
  • DRDO’s Tank functions with organic bacteria called Inoculum (based on cow dung) and more than 99.9% of pathogens in toilet wastewater get digested in the bio-septic tank without any chemicals.
  • The process does not need any electricity for operation and a one-time feeding of liquid bio-bacteria Inoculum is enough.
  • The DRDO’s Tank is One Time Installation, and needs no maintenance after installation
  • The tank needs less space and is a 100% environment-friendly method.
  • There is no bad odour in toilets from the tanks; faecal matter is not visible in the tank
  • Non-clogging type; Effluent is free from odour and solid waste

Since 2013, the DRDO has given Transfer of Technology (ToT) to about 60 private firms across the country. Of the 8 ToT holders in south India, one is in Tamil Nadu. According to an estimate, about 3.5 to 5 MLD of toilet wastewater is being recycled in Tamil Nadu through the DRDO’s technology. Though, it’s a drop in the ocean of huge sewage generated it is a start.

Also Read: Rs 217 crore — the yearly loss from degrading Pallikaranai marsh

According to a reply in Parliament, about 20,000 biodigester septic tanks were installed across the country.

The current focus of centralised treatment system with 53 Faecal Sludge Treatment Plants (FSTPs) established in Tamil Nadu is not an efficient system — through 18 FSTPs, just 0.52 MLD sewage is being treated; 35 FSTPs of 0.84 MLD capacity are under construction.

Given its efficiency and ease of operation, the DRDO’s BioDigester Technology should be included as part of the “Tamil Nadu Urban Sanitation Support Programme” and also under the “Tamil Nadu Combined Development and Building Rules, 2019” which govern designing, building plans approvals, etc.

Local bodies have to be empowered to implement a decentralised system of sewage/ wastewater management through the recycling of wastewater with DRDO Biodigester Septic Tank Technology. The public policy research shows that the RCC concrete-based precast model should be installed in all new buildings constructions all over Tamil Nadu and approved by urban local bodies to prevent environmental degradation even through other materials like FRB, etc.

The technology can also put an end to the utterly degrading and unacceptable practice of manual scavenging and sewer and septic tank often leading to loss of human life. While the Greater Chennai Corporation routinely disowns the incidents, blaming private hiring of contractors and workers, it has not provided proper technological solutions to prevent such incidents.

Thus, we are at a crossroads with huge health and environmental challenges facing society. The DRDO BioDigester Septic Tank Technology could prove a gamechanger to ensure a healthier urban environment in Tamil Nadu.

(The author is an economist and public policy expert)

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