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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Smart Sanitation: Shimla Sets an Example

A couple of days back, I read this really great news about Shimla - a hill station in the north of India: the popular tourist hub is aiming for smart sanitation by installing hundreds of E-toilets.

Now, what is E-toilet? Well, its an unmanned toilet which cleans itself, one that's based on a sensor-based technology.

Let me explain a little more.  As you see in the photo below, the toilet has a locked door. Now, when you want to use it, you insert a coin to open the door. As the door opens, the toilet's sensor-based light system is automatically turns on - pretty much like the way your ATM teller machine turns on when you swipe your card.
An E-toilet. Courtesy: Eram Scientific

And, just like the ATM machine, the toilet also will direct you with audio commands. This means, you will be directed on how to use the toilet.

To conserve water, the toilets are programmed to flush 1.5 liter of water after three minutes of usage and 4.5 liters if the usage is longer. This “smart” toilet also washes the platform by itself after every five or 10 persons use the toilet. An instructional note is pasted outside the toilet to make the user familiar with the functioning of this toilet. The auto flush goes off on its own and uses just the right amount of water that is needed - not less and not more.

 But why is Shimla adopting e-toilet, instead of building more of the old-style conventional toilets?

There are many reasons behind that and saving water is one of them, says the mayor of the city, Sanjay Chauhan. According to Chauhan, E-toilets require little water compared to the traditional ones. They are self-cleaning and equipped with latest technology. What's more, these toilets are portable which means, they can be installed and relocated  and reinstalled anywhere.

As a popular tourist destination, Shimla receives more than 10 million tourists every year. As expected, the number of  shops, malls and eateries in the city is also ever increasing. And all these means the city needs more water and more toilets than ever before.

To ignore this need could mean a number of risks: 1) forcing both the residents (including those who work in the tourism industry) and the tourists live in unhygienic conditions with stinking toilets. 2) pushing the city towards a serious water crisis, 3) a serious health crisis like an epidemic  and least but not last, frustrate the tourists and see them return disappointed, vowing never to return.

Shimla in the winter
 
Obviously, the water-saving automated toilets promise to be a boon for the city. The problem, however, is that its not cheap. According to Mayor Chauhan, each of the toilets will cost the city half a million rupees. The Mayor's immediate plan is to build 125 toilets (some of them will also be installed inside shopping malls) and if you put together their prices, we are looking at 6.8 million rupees which does seem a bit staggering.

But then again, this will definitely be cheaper than what poor sanitation - especially a public health crisis  - could actually cost the city such as a sharp decline in the tourism revenues. No wonder, the city administration is ready to bear the cost - a smart decision indeed!

But Shimla is not the only hill station in India to struggle with a growing tourism industry and with a rapidly growing demand for water and toilets. There are dozens of others. Take Darjeeling - the well known tea-producing hills station in the east, for example. The city faces acute water crisis every so often. Recently, I read this Facebook post that painted a very honest - and disturbing - image of the city's sanitation scenario: "“Offices galore, but where are the toilets?”"

Ooty, another hill station has also been reported  several times to be struggling with water shortage . In fact, the name of hill cities that with a chronic challenge of water and sanitation can be quite long.


World over today, 'Smart City'  is becoming a buzzword and  sustainable development is fast becoming the benchmark of good governance. This is why, it will be both smart and wise on the part of all of these cities to follow the precedent Shimla has been setting, and adopt sanitation facilities that are resource-saving, convenient and user-friendly.

Yes, there is this high-cost factor. But then, cities can always partner with corporates or other funding agencies - not just at the local or national level, but also with the international ones, can't they?


Sunday, June 07, 2015

Rohingya Refugees: Vulnerable on the sea, not much better on land!

You probably have been reading about them these past few days or watching them on TV - the Rohingya refugees of Myanmar who were chased out of their homeland and now floating around the ocean on boats with no food, no water and nowhere to go. Hundreds of them have already died already while death stares at hundreds of others.

Truth is, hunger and misery are also constant companions of even those Rohingyas who live on the land. I met some of them in Hyderabad city of India. Sharing here some of the images that, several months later, still haunt me!


The Rohingya refugees arrived in India from Bangladesh. For some, it has been a few weeks, while some have been here since 2012. Each one of them has a horrific story to share: beaten, tortured, forced to leave home, watching their near ones being murdered and their homes being burned down.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Toilets: teaching is better than talking!

Sometime in April, I met Roopa, an extraordinary young woman, in a village called Nagenhalli in south-west India. She was smart, friendly, warm and very pretty. But what made me call her extraordinary is this: the woman had built a toilet, all by herself.

Roopa's toilet
Now, before I tell you how she built the toilet, let me share the 'why':

Roopa is a Dalit and her mother is a former temple sex slave. All the men from her village wanted Roopa to also become a sex slave and, as she reached puberty, they began to look at her with lust. So, one day Roopa's mother ran away to another village miles away from her  own, taking along her 6 children.

But in their new village, women and girls were often sexually harassed and assaulted by men from
'higher castes'. Most of these assaults took place when girls and women went to relieve themselves in the open.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Death by coal: our women deserve better

A few weeks ago, I met Minjamma, a woman in her 50s, in Kariganur neighborhood of Hospet town in southern India's Karnataka. And it was a terrible experience.

It was late afternoon and Minjamma was getting ready to cook dinner. She brought out an iron cookstove, placed that in the lane next to her home and lit it. 


Within minutes, a big column of thick, brown, foul-smelling smoke rose and engulfed the whole lane.  My eyes, nose and throat began to burn and water and I found myself nauseated and struggling to breathe. Before I could black out, I ran - to the end of the lane, about 500 meters from Minjamma's house. But from there,  I could still see her bent over the stove, poking it and coughing loudly.

I was wondering when it would the smoke clear up, so I could return to Minjamma's home. However, soon  women from every house in the neighborhood began to light their stoves. The smoke grew thicker, uglier and the air became so smelly, I clutched my chest trying hard to breathe and hoping I wouldn't just drop dead.

 A few teenage girls came out of their homes and sat beside me, asking if I was ok and offered me water.  Once I was able to breathe easy, my first question was what was this horrible thing burning in every cookstove. The answer came as a shock: they were burning coal. 
Real coal.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Clean India: There's No Glory in Being Stupid!

Last week I was in north Karnataka. One of the biggest attractions there is the dam over river Tungabhadra which provides water to several districts of north Karnataka and neighboring Andhra Pradesh.  I was told that this is a must-see and they were right: the dam was truly beautiful.

          
But every time I crossed over one of the branch canals of the dam, I saw it littered with trash. So, there were people bathing, washing and drawing water from the canals for their other needs while also throwing their trash in!  How disgusting!

I returned from the trip yesterday and saw the trash collector with her van. The woman -  employed by the  municipality - comes 3 times in a week and collects the trash. We have to pay her 50 rupees which is actually less than what a packet of cigarettes (about 90 rupees) or, a large bottle of Coke costs (80 rupees).

But every time the woman comes, she collects trash from only a few families in our lane. The reason? Others are not ready to pay her 50 rupees for trash disposal. And these are educated people from fairly well to do families!

So, how do they dispose their trash? Well, they go out in the evening with a bundle of trash ( a plastic bag) and throw it by the roadside. Sometimes, the trash collectors stop by and pick them up, sometimes they just rot there. Often, dogs tear them often, if they smell meat or fish.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

When Thirst Beats Education

A few weeks back, I was in a village along the border of Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh where I met Sandhya Rani, a 10 year old. She was carrying a bamboo staff on her shoulder and , fastened to its ends, three aluminum vessels. In these vessels, she was going to carry water from a borewell for her family, along with her 7 year old sister Saundrya.

Their parents were working as migrant laborers in a city and the girls lived with their elderly grandmother.



I followed Rani from her house which was at the village' entrance to the borewell at the far end of the village. That was the only borwell in the village - the source of potable water for over 500 people.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Girls' Education: Lets Look Beyond Enrollment

I recently met Bharti, a bubbly 13 year old, at a children's shelter 110 km away from Hyderabad. She had been rescued a few of months ago, the staff at the shelter told me.

"Rescued from who and what? Traffickers? Abusive employers?" I wanted to know
The answer was, "from her own parents".


No, Bharti's parents were not abusive or trying to sell their daughter to someone. It's just that they often stopped her from going to school and took her to work in a farm instead.

Now this sounds quite trivial, doesn't it? After all, the parents are just making the girl miss a few days' school now and then, right?

Not quite.