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How we can improve waste management in rural India

In a small-scale qualitative study, we looked into why untreated fecal waste is dumped in open fields in rural India and came up with some recommendations for policymakers.

A pit-dumping truck in Darbhanga district, Bihar ©IDinsight/Vinod Sharma

India has long struggled to end open defecation and safely manage fecal waste. As part of the Swachh Bharat Mission launched in 2014, the Government of India committed itself to eliminating the practice of open defecation in the country by 2019. To this end, the Swachh Bharat mission has had many notable achievements. Within the past five years, approximately 10 crores (100 million) new toilets have been constructed throughout rural India, with nearly six lakh (600,000) villages across 699 districts and 36 states/union territories having been declared open defecation-free.

The speed with which the government has constructed toilets in rural India is impressive, and toilet usage is beginning to increase as well. However, there are still health risks communities face. In a few years, these new toilet pits will begin to fill and there is still uncertainty as to where this waste will be disposed of. If waste is not properly disposed of, there is little benefit to a latrine over open defecation, because the waste could still end up contaminating water and food sources. With the rapid increase in toilet use, the question of disposal is becoming ever more pressing.

We conducted a small-scale qualitative study of 40 farmers across Darbhanga district, Bihar, and Nalgonda district, Telangana as part of a research course. Our team wanted to better understand sanitation practices in these communities. While this differs from IDinsight’s typical work in that it was an independent research project without a client, we believe our findings could be useful to inform future policy-focused research.

We found that most fecal waste was dumped in the fields belonging to farmers or in unclaimed lands outside of villages. Our recommendations are for researchers to investigate the effects of 1) raising community awareness about the health risks of disposing waste on open land and 2) setting up treatment plants closer to waste collection sites.

Where do communities dispose of their waste?

We found that people do not know where their waste is disposed of in the village. Some people told us that after their pits are emptied, the pit-emptying tankers leave the village and they don’t know what happens to the waste. Others told us that the contents were deposited in agricultural fields or other open lands. Perhaps most concerning, when we talked directly to the pit cleaners in both districts, they told us they most often dump the contents of the toilet pits in empty fields. Sometimes, villagers pay them to dispose of the non-composted contents of latrine pits in their fields. If they cannot find anyone in the village who is willing to have the pit contents disposed of in their fields, the pit-cleaners instead dump the waste anywhere outside the village as they move to the next village.

Toilet waste dumping in an open land/farm field ©IDinsight/Vinod Sharma
Why is waste dumped on inappropriate sites?

When speaking to farmers who had previously had pit-cleaners empty the contents of the latrine pits onto their fields, they told us that the pit contents act as manure, helping them to have healthier crops. These farmers did not know about the detriments of this practice. Most farmers, however, would not actively request pit cleaners to dump this “manure” onto their yard.

Unsafe disposal is a major health hazard, but few people seem to know about it.

Open defecation causes a number of health problemsespecially for young children. Additionally, studies have shown that openly depositing untreated sewage waste can pose health hazards to humans and decrease the productivity of the land.

In order to improve rural sanitation, harmful practices such as disposing of fecal waste in fields and water bodies must be stopped immediately. However, most farmers and pit cleaners in our study did not know that these practices are harmful to their health. Even pit cleaners who were aware of health hazards related to pit cleaning did not know about the hazards associated with dumping.

Creating awareness may help change people’s misconceptions about dumping untreated fecal waste. Departments such as the Health, Sanitation, and Agriculture Departments could together help spread proper awareness among the people.

While our qualitative research did not address government policies directly, the challenges faced by pit-emptiers may provide useful information for policy-makers. We recommend investigating whether improving messaging around the health hazards of fecal waste could reduce unsafe disposal. In addition, policymakers could set up treatment plants in close proximity to the collection sites at the block or district level to treat the content of pits and simplify the waste transportation process.

This qualitative work is part of the growing evidence base that is necessary to better understand the complexities of waste disposal and how best to operationalize solutions such as the ones mentioned above. We look forward to future quantitative and qualitative research on the subject of waste management in rural India such that it can inform national sanitation policy.

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