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Toilet truth hits drive

New Delhi, Sept. 3: Whether the digester bacteria have called cease work or not isn’t clear but the government’s bio-toilet drive in villages is suddenly looking a bit leaky.

The Odisha government has told the National Human Rights Commission that nine of the 12 bio-digester toilets installed in five villages in Bhadrak district have become defunct, contrary to the Centre’s claims that these toilets don’t need maintenance.

The toilets, developed by defence research organisation DRDO and launched by then rural development minister Jairam Ramesh as part of the Centre’s drive to end open defecation, had been installed in 2012 in two blocks — Dhamara and Basudevpur — all meant for community use.

In a report last month, the state’s rural development department said the Bhadrak district administration had written to the DRDO in July requesting it to repair the toilets — that use bacteria for treating the waste — but has got no response yet.

No one from the DRDO was available for comment.

The report followed a case filed by a lawyer, Radhakanta Tripathy, who complained to the rights panel that the toilets were not helping the common people and the practice of open defecation was continuing as before.

“The people were expecting their miseries would end after the installation of the bio-toilets. These toilets have become defunct and nobody is taking responsibility for their maintenance,” Tripathy said.

The report has come as a “reality check” at a time the Centre is promoting these toilets in a big way as part of its efforts to make India free of open defecation by 2019.

A letter from the ministry of drinking water and sanitation last month to all state secretaries in charge of sanitation said states may be given the option of adopting the DRDO model for safe disposal of human waste. The ministry also sent the names of 39 firms that produce bio-toilets, used mainly by the army in high-altitude areas.

The railways, islands such as Lakshadweep and houseboats also use the technology that involves bacteria converting human waste to odourless compost and biogas. There is no need to replenish the bacteria since they regenerate.

Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of sanitation NGO Sulabh International, said the technology was not foolproof. “The water released from tanks of these bio-digesters is pollutant. The technology should be further developed.”

But Rail Tech, one of the firms mentioned in the government letter, defended the technology. “The technology is working perfectly in trains and army camps in high-altitude areas. There is no reason why they cannot work in the plains,” Rail Tech director Kunal Jain said.

He said the problem lay with the user. “If foreign materials are dropped into the drainage system of the toilets, they will stop working.”