The LexGaze Weekly - WE THE PEOPLE

EcoSan Revolution in India: Overcoming Social & Legal Challenges

Arijit Sanyal

Issue 14 | September 20, 2020

Natural resources are not equitably distributed and call for sustained usage in our daily lives. Conventional flush-toilets have undermined the idea of sustained usage, especially across the dry regions of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Ladakh and Arunachal. Hence, when the idea of water-consuming toilets threatens the ecological balance of a region, one must take note of the successful Ecological Sanitation (EcoSan) projects in similar regions across the globe. Eco-friendly technology that converts organic waste into compost without endangering the shrinking water resources has brought immense success to South Africa, Kenya [WIPO Green] and a few regions of India, where they have been used on a pilot basis. Though India has been declared open-defecation free as of January 2020 [UNICEF], reports indicate that approximately a quarter of the households in villages across dry regions either end up using excessive water for sanitation or have to defecate in the open. This is not a viable solution in the long run [NSO]. Though not new in India, EcoSan toilets have faced numerous mainstream social and legal challenges. Due to this people from backward regions are left with no other choice but to defecate in the open.

EcoSan toilets were designed to serve the needs of the dry and arid regions in South Africa. These units involve a waterless mechanism that turns excreta into compost and serves a dual purpose of preserving water for crucial requirements along with preventing groundwater from getting contaminated. Unlike traditional toilets made out of porcelain, EcoSan toilets use superior quality polyethene and wood in order to make it portable and easy to install. This takes into consideration the harsh weather of such areas and the nomadic tendencies of people living there.  Though a unique model remains unavailable, the EcoSan model patented by Eco Sanitation ltd., in South Africa has by far been the most successful model in terms of utility, marketability and durability. This has further been exported to Europe, Australia, Northern Africa and Central Asian countries as well. A noticeable aspect of the same is that it has been employed by countries with a dearth of water resources and by those with ample water resources. For instance, the coastal states of Australia, where water has not been a problem has employed EcoSan toilets in camps and luxury hotels [WIPO Green].

As far as the dry regions of India are concerned, tonnes of solid waste is generated on a yearly basis. Most of this waste ends up contaminating water bodies and delimiting water resources, something which is already insufficient [UNICEF]. However, challenges in India are not restricted to ecological reasons alone. Social factors play a significant role as well. Projects involving employability of EcoSan toilets in Rajasthan faced strong opposition from local communities because many refused to believe that it was a better alternative while a few others wanted water supplied toilets. Despite being cheaper than installing conventional toilets, reports of MNREGA’s mission in association with local NGOs cited that considerable numbers of households preferred these toilets over the waterless ones. Furthermore, it does not require high maintenance. The only maintenance it needs is the periodical changing of compost bins and plastic cans to seal-off for decomposition. Any departure from the required steps may lead to health hazards.

Legally speaking, EcoSan toilets have not been patented in India yet because it has not been a commercially driven exercise on a large scale. There is a need to protect the economic interest of individuals, it is difficult to trace the genesis of this idea in India. Unlike the South African model, the Indian model is far less sophisticated and has been collectively developed by communities in association with local NGOs. Though households in Rajasthan might have frowned at this unconventional model, EcoSan toilets in Ladakh have proved to be fundamental not only in dealing with scarce water resources but to meet demands of compost for local plantations in backward and interior zones cut out from the mainstream population as well [Business Insider]. Considering the backwardness and low per capita income of these households, their innovation must be protected by eliminating those who might want to commercially exploit any expression of creativity, which had no contribution from their end. A possible synthesis between intellectual property and these local innovations can help communities deal with issues around water shortages and also help to bridge the income gap. However, this requires multi-tier efforts. Households coming from remote areas cannot be expected to comprehend sophisticated Intellectual Property laws, let alone commercially exploit their product which they consider a frugal innovation. Joint efforts of the government and NGOs can help these communities understand their basic rights under the Intellectual Property regime and move towards a brighter future where they not only deal with global agendas ingeniously but also help others in reaching the collective goal.