Manual scavenging, the abhorrent practice of employing people for handling and disposing of human excreta from latrines and sewers, refuses to die out. Long after the practice itself may have ended, its repercussions continue to live on, negatively impacting the people and places associated with it for generations to come. This is the story of Municipal Colony at Chathanad, Alappuzha – a settlement of workers and their families previously employed in manual scavenging.
Alappuzha, like other towns across India, earlier relied on a system of pit latrines which had to be manually emptied and the excrement carted off to a specified dumping spot in Sarvodayapuram (a village north of Alappuzha town limits). The workers employed in this practice (who were later regularised to become contingency workers with Alappuzha Municipality) were allocated land at Municipal Colony, Chathanad.
Interviews with erstwhile sanitation workers reveal the stigma and discrimination associated with it which lingers on, uncommon working hours, physical exhaustion, and the general degrading nature of the work. Although the practice has been outlawed in Kerala and they are no longer directly employed in such work, the socio-economic effects persist. Some of the youth are still allegedly involved in informal septic tank cleaning. They also do not have security of tenure, even after five decades.
The sanitation facilities constructed for the families were quite inadequate, with just one public toilet for nearly 50 families.Over time, due to lack of maintenance and disuse, the public toilet fell into disrepair. Some of the families had constructed basic latrines for personal use, which however being unscientific were prone to overflowing in the region with high water table. With a lack of safe disposal facilities for greywater and other forms of solid waste, the entire area of the colony had started becoming prone to chronic waterlogging and a breeding ground for disease vectors.
CANALPY was able to intervene at this point. Focussed on improving the overall water quality of Chathanad canal, the CANALPY team prepared a total sanitation solution for municipal colony, to deal with both solid and liquid waste scientifically. The major part of this endeavour was providing improved sanitation to the residents.
Along with Inspiration (an architecture firm from Kochi, and a member of CDD, i.e Consortium for DEWATS Dissemination) as a technical partner, CANALPY set out to tackle the issue. By mobilising finance through CSR from KMML (Kerala Metals and Minerals Limited) the goal of improved sanitation was divided into 3 parts:
- Construction of individual toilets for each household
- Designing and constructing a decentralized wastewater treatment system to treat black and grey water
- Constructing an aerobic composting unit to deal with biodegradable waste
Since land constraints prevented construction of septic tanks under each toilet, the wastewater is brought to a decentralized system (sized appropriately) where it is treated through an anaerobic baffle reactor system. The final treatment occurs through a phytoremediation system after which it is let out to the chathanad canal.
The entire system is designed to be as low maintenance as possible, to avoid costs which might have to be borne by the community in the future. Almost entirely gravity fed, there is just one electric pump in the entire system. It also does not use any chemical or electrical methods to treat the wastewater. The other interventions included – converting the rundown public toilet into a reading room, constructing an aerobic composting unit for biodegradable waste, and beautification of the entire colony with paintings on the walls.
The transformation of the colony is quite remarkable. Two residents are now employed for maintenance of the system, and they take great joy and pride in their improved facilities. There is an implicit monitoring from the side of the residents to ensure that the colony and surroundings now stay clean.