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When the pits fill up: Fecal Sludge “Management” in urban India


Onsite sanitation systems (OSS) have burgeoned in urban India as sewer infrastructure has not been able to catch up with the rapid urbanization and growth. India’s aspirational flagship program on sanitation and hygiene -- the Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Campaign) – has abetted the construction of toilets with the aims to increase access to, and the use of, toilets to eliminate open defecation. However, management of fecal sludge (FS) generated by the OSS is critical for sustainable sanitation. FS needs to be safely contained, emptied, transported, and disposed of or reused after adequate treatment. In un-sewered cities of India, the services of emptying and transporting FS are mainly provided by privately-run cleaning trucks. Lack of adequate fecal sludge treatment plants (FSTPs) compel the trucks to either dispose of the FS without any treatment or facilitate its reuse in agriculture. In this dissertation, we trace the activities that kick in when a pit fills up.

Based on a thick description of septic tank cleaning trucks in Bangalore and Dharwad (Karnataka, India), we find that the physical, social and financial mechanisms through which the back-end services are organized are virtually invisible in national fecal sludge management policies (Chapter 2). We show that it is rational, under the current conditions, for trucking operations to externalize the costs of urban pollution and social (i.e. caste) inequality that are produced and reproduced when they “manage” fecal waste. We draw on the literatures on invisibility and the social role of disgust to explain the seen-and-unseen nature of these trucks. “Seeing” sludge management as it is practiced today is essential for understanding how the sanitary city is being produced and for the success of any ongoing or future sanitation reform policies.

Though mechanization of sanitation services is increasing, the societal perception of sanitation workers has not changed much. Chapter 3 elicits the lived experiences of sanitation workers from the opposite ends of the spectrum – manual scavenging and mechanical emptying. The chapter uncovers the daily lives and the human side of sanitation workers, to emphasize the humanity of sanitation workers in India.

Considerable amount of untreated FS is reused in agriculture in the peri-urban areas of Dharwad and Bangalore. Chapter 4 unpacks the ecosystem of FS reuse by tracing why and how FS reaches a farm, and why and how it is used (or not) once it gets there. In this chapter, we estimate farm owners’ preferences for treated fecal sludge-based fertilizer, gauge workers’ willingness to work with FS and with FSF and identify worker practices of potential health risks. We find truck operators are facilitating and even promoting FS reuse in agriculture for lack of ease of disposal. Farm owners show a strong inclination towards reusing FS, even if it is untreated. Such a reuse potentially harms the health of farm workers We also find that both the farm owners and workers have positive preferences towards certain characteristics of treated FS.

We conclude with a short chapter that summarizes the key findings and opens up discussion for future research that can potentially build upon or contribute to our findings.

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