Destination Kerala CEO Roundtable: Sanitation Issues, Solutions Evaluated

Kochi: The Eram Group presents Destination Kerala CEO Roundtable: Building a Sustainable Business Model in Sanitation held recently saw the coming together of leaders from the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) sector at Hotel Crowne Plaza, Kochi to deliberate on the challenges facing sanitation efforts in Kerala and how the various stakeholders of the ecosystem can work collaboratively aided by technology to build a sustainable business model.
The panelists of the sixth edition of the CEO Roundtable were Vishwanathan Arangath, Managing Director, Vasco Environmental India Pvt. Ltd.; Siju Thomas, Ernakulam District Coordinator, Kerala Suchitwa Mission; Bincy Baby, Director and Head of Business, Eram Scientific Solutions; Gopinath Parayil, Managing Director, The Blue Yonder; Shamsudeen K, Head, NeST Hi-Tech Park SEZ, NeST Group and Zakir Hussain, General Manager, Business Development, Japan Market, SFO Technologies, NeST Group. The session was moderated by Jose Kunnappally, Chief Editor, Destination Kerala Business Magazine.

In Kerala, unlike rest of India, residential sanitation exists, but we don’t have adequate public sanitation. How can this be resolved?
VISHWANATHAN ARANGATH: This is a misconception that most Keralites live with. When you say sanitation, it is not just about having a toilet, using a toilet or having that toilet connected to a septic tank. If that is the definition of sanitation, then Kerala is great. Unfortunately, and scientifically, that is not the definition. It is only when the faecal matter or toilet waste is treated to the point of not causing any harm to society we can say that sanitation is in place. Sadly, Kerala’s sanitation coverage will be less than five per cent. The first thing we need to do is to educate Keralites and tell them that sanitation has not happened at all. States like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have gone far ahead in terms of putting sanitation facilities in place.

At present, there is only a single mentionable sewage treatment plant in Kerala; the 107-MLD capacity one in Thiruvananthapuram. It runs at 30 per cent capacity, primarily because the authorities have not laid sewer lines. Other than this one, sewer network system does not exist anywhere in Kerala.
If one goes for a boat ride on the backwaters of Kochi, during low tide one will get to see any number of sewers discharging waste matter into the backwaters. So the problem is at its peak. If it is not addressed by giving it priority we are not very far from witnessing an epidemic outbreak of epic proportions.

Simply because toilets are not connected to a sewer system or waste is not being treated, could the situation be termed as a complete mess?
VISHWANATHAN: There was a big celebration over Kerala being made Open Defecation Free (ODF) in November 2016. But the definition of ODF says that it is not just about having toilets. It is also about getting sewage collected, moving it into an area where it is treated and disposed off, and ensuring that it no longer poses a threat to human health, society and flora and fauna in anyway. But this is not happening in Kerala.

SIJU THOMAS: Compared to other states, our water table is higher. The number of nuclear families is very high in our State and hence, pits are situated very close to water bodies. There is a high chance of surface water getting contaminated. Three years ago, District Suchitwa Missions collected and tested water samples randomly and found widespread presence of E. coli bacteria. Coming to urban areas, we have septic tanks, but the density of population is very high. We can say that we are an ODF State compared to the rest of India. Toilets and septic tanks are everywhere, but our concept of sanitation ends there. We need to take steps to change it.

Since the launch of Swachch Bharat Mission, we have constructed around two lakh toilets across the State. Now we are looking beyond toilets, and are focussing more on solid and liquid waste management. Till last year, we were concentrating only on organic waste management. Now we have started looking at non-biodegradable waste management. What we do is to collect non-biodegradable waste on a regular basis and treat it. But the major problem is the segregation of waste. People tend to mix biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste. It is the responsibility of citizens to treat organic waste at the source itself.

BINCY BABY: I think the Government should focus on the adoption of new technologies and innovation in the sanitation sector along with creation of awareness. At Eram, we came up with the concept of automated toilets. When we introduced this concept, we had to face two issues – collection of waste and its treatment. Nowadays, thousands of toilets are being constructed, but maintenance still remains the major problem. Unless we address the O&M part of sanitation infrastructure, it is not going to be sustainable. We have reached a stage wherein we are thinking about generating energy, water and whatever by-products possible from human waste. Human waste is going to be the next source of power. We are in touch with Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in this regard. This is the area we are stepping into next.

As a tourism practitioner how does the sanitation scenario impact you?
GOPINATH PARAYIL: I am a tour operator who is actually scared of tourism. The way the hospitality industry consumes the resources and generates waste is totally irresponsible. Very few hoteliers and almost none of the tour operators or houseboat owners actually invest money to make sure that destinations remain waste-free. I know many properties so close to rainforests dumping waste for last 13-14 years. This is going into waterways, streams….
Another aspect is where do you find an experiential holiday in Kerala? Our policy is to let more tourists arrive, spurring Kerala’s growth. This is a dangerous trend. Kerala should have sustainable growth so that high quality tourism comes in.

But with huge quantity of waste lying around, how can we bring in quality tourism? There is no waste management at all. We need to start the process of involving communities. The community needs to take responsibility. But, for the community to take responsibility, you need to provide infrastructure. Unless there is infrastructure, there is no point in urging people to follow something. The only way forward is to let the community take responsibility and implement regulations.

SHAMSUDEEN K: The scenario is more frightening now. What you do now is collectively polluting. Contaminated water level is rising. In a span of 5-7 years, if we dig, we will get only E. coli-contaminated water anywhere in the State. Only 2-3 percent of waste is being processed in the State. The rest is collected in bulk and dumped in public places.

We have to develop the culture of ‘not to litter’ before we blame the authorities. I am delighted to see a statement from our Prime Minister that we require toilets more than temples here. I think some changes are happening. Twenty-five years ago, people used to swim and engage in fishing in the Perandoor Canal. Now you can’t go anywhere near the canal. We need to undo the damage we have inflicted. That is where NeST Group is coming into the picture.

How do you build a culture of sanitation?
GOPINATH: Our generation has missed the bus. If you want to talk about sustainable initiatives, we have to invest in children. The place we live is getting ruined. We must realise that our own survival and economic sustenance are dependent on the health of a particular river or water body in a particular area. This message has to go down into our communities and schools. Communities need to be engaged so that they feel a sense of responsibility.

VISHWANATHAN: The cleanliness-obsessed Malayalis don’t realise that the water they drink without treatment often contains E. coli. You should tell the people the reality bluntly.

ZAKIR HUSSAIN: We keep our houses clean and are very hygienic. But we dump waste outside and public cleanliness is a mess. We need to inculcate the culture of public cleanliness among the people. Facilities for segregation and collection of waste have to be provided. On the one side we should start awareness drive from the grass-roots level and on the other the local bodies should take steps for waste management.

Why are sanitation projects facing agitations or getting delayed indefinitely?
BINCY: The most critical challenge we face when we go and install a public toilet is public protests. Everyone wants a toilet, but no one wants it in front of their house or office. We face so much of resistance owing to political reasons or other vested interests. This results in project delays and sometimes we have to completely dismantle the entire project and shift it to other places.

GOPINATH: You can’t blame people alone. Look at Njeliyanparamba in Kozhikode. Even marriages started breaking up because people found it difficult to live there owing to the stink from the waste treatment plant. People are terrified because they fear that if a plant comes up the whole place is going to stink. Over and above, we are consistently coming out again and again with very bad engineering. So you can’t blame the people for raising such fears when we show them these kinds of outdated models.

VISHWANATHAN: This is not a space where you float the tender inviting the lowest quotation. Before awarding the work, the government must verify that the contractor is qualified, and has knowledge of the place, science and engineering. Today, we are building treatment plants our grandfathers used to construct. Plants built in the 1950s and 60s are getting replicated. This has to change.

Regarding public resistance in Kerala, the loudest voice tends to be that of those who want to thwart the plan. At the same time, the majority who are actually supportive remains very quite. We also lack the will to execute even after a project is envisioned and orders are issued. The government’s lack of will and people’s resistance caused by insufficient information are hampering implementation of projects. The awareness is so poor that people are agitating often for wrong reasons. For example, KSUDP had invited tenders three times for laying sewer lines at Mattancherry. But the contractor was not allowed to lay a single pipe owing to public resistance against digging the road. From our own experience, we are right now on the verge of commissioning the first sewer network in Kerala at Guruvayur. It is an 18-month project that I have been building for five years. It is not because we are a sloppy company, or slow with resources. It is because we have been denied permission to carry out work on the road for laying pipes.

GOPINATH: Rather than blaming the people, we all should take responsibility. It is easy to criticise the public. Where will the public dump the waste? Give them infrastructure, they will dump it there.

How viable is private participation in building public sanitation infrastructure?
BINCY: Sanitation is not a glamorous sector. There are not many players who are ready to try out new innovations. You do not get encouragement either. Someone who has actually acknowledged our work is Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Though we have approached the Government of Kerala and Government of India, their responses were not quite encouraging. With the support of the Foundation, we got access to a network of large number of back-end technology providers. They have different technologies for on-site treatment of toilet waste. Through these collaborations we will be coming up with commercial models for treating human waste and generate water, energy etc. in a couple of years.

If you are looking for private participation in the sanitation sector, the Government needs to change its policies. In the case of PPP model in sanitation, sadly I have found that they all look at sanitation as a revenue generating area. Actually sanitation is supposed to be a human right. By charging a user fee, we are preventing someone from using the toilet. Let us forget about generating revenue out of a toilet! But then there are also problems related to maintenance of toilets. These are preventing genuine private players from contributing to the public sanitation sector. The Government should promote innovations in the sector and look at their long-term benefits.

VISHWANATHAN: Sanitation is an unattractive space. The fact is that most of the players in the sector are not qualified enough to handle it. I have been working in Kerala for 17 years. I got a lot of opportunities to build sewage treatment plants for small hotels and commercial establishments. I did not undertake them because they wanted cheap facilities to hoodwink the Pollution Control Board. Though a lot of plants were built by others, many of them failed over the years and started to pollute the surface water. I started getting calls again, this time to fix those plants. The plants were initially installed by people who had little expertise in the field, without any engineering or design behind it. In Kerala, intellectual property is not valued at all.

ZAKIR HUSSAIN: Involvement of private companies is absolutely essential for fostering innovation. When we talk about water body cleaning, we can educate the public and create awareness, but all these things are not going to work. The situation is so bad that normal cleaning is not enough. You need high tech innovation to do it. NeST is trying to bring in that. We have developed a unique nano bubble technology to clean water bodies in association with Oceanaid of Japan. But getting acceptance for a new technology will take some time. As a Kerala company, we want to start this program here and take it across India. The Government should ensure that technology gets preference over price during the tendering process.

BINCY: For Eram, a lot of our work in this space is still CSR. Ours is a social enterprise and we are supposed to make profit out of it. Outside Kerala we are receiving support for e-Toilets. Now we are doing a very big project in Jaipur. We have finished 250 toilets in Bengaluru and are planning to add another 75. In Chennai, e-Toilets were largely accepted in slums. Even illiterate women use e-Toilets. Our e-Toilets are remotely controlled, completely unmanned systems. In the long run, this is going to be the technology that will bring about sanitation revolution in the country.

How does the Suchitwa Mission view this kind of innovative business model?
SIJU: Obviously the Government rate is much lower than the market one. In the ODF campaign itself the unit cost was fixed at Rs. 15,400 per unit. For this amount we can only provide bare minimum facilities. In coastal areas conventional pit toilets are not feasible. We have to use concrete septic tanks. In such cases, we have to raise additional money through PSUs as the Government has financial limitations.

VISHWANATHAN: Unless you bring in value for technology and build it into the tendering process you cannot segregate between not so good, good and really good solutions. We need a messiah for sanitation. Some public figure has to say I am going to make sanitation my vision. He/she should be able to mobilise people. Only a movement like this would work.

BINCY: There is another problem. There is no provision in MP/MLA fund to maintain toilets. This makes the projects completely unviable. Sometimes we have to close it down. We maintain the toilets free of cost far beyond the standard warranty period. Service provider needs to have maintenance fund. Only political will can take sanitation to the forefront and make it work.

How important is an integrated view in the WASH sector to unlock synergy and innovation?
VISHWANATHAN: Right now it is a complete Government affair. Providing water or treating waste water is Government’s responsibility. In the waste water domain, Government has completely failed. On the water side, it is 50 per cent successful as several homes are enjoying water connectivity. Eventually, if these sectors are to really succeed, they have to be given to the private sector, which considers supply and treatment of water and waste water respectively as services.

BINCY: Actually we are witnessing a lot of synergies in the WASH sector. If you are a sanitation expert, it is better to focus on sanitation which gives better results, so that we can concentrate more on the R&D part of it. And if you have a player who is good at waste water treatment, you can associate with them. This drives better synergies.

ZAKIR: For instance, the technology we developed is being used in sewage treatment plants also. This technology can be very effectively incorporated into an existing sewage treatment plant without any additional infrastructure being added. It saves a lot of electricity and the process is highly refined.

How do you see the WASH segment impacting tourism potential?
GOPINATH: It is going to be disastrous soon. If we continue like this, I imagine seeing people rioting against tourism industry in the next five years. Now there is a support system for the tourism industry comprising local people because they are making a living out of it. However, a lot of people have already started silently boycotting our backwaters. The industry is not yet ready to accept the fact, but it is a reality. There are so many beautiful initiatives happening, but they are all islands of excellence. Provide a platform but don’t bring in a brand into it. The community should come together and generate ideas. Kerala has a lot of ideas, we need to collaborate and crowd-source and apply it properly.

What are the immediate next steps needed to improve the current scenario?
BINCY: Sanitation needs to be taken to the forefront. There should be wider debate among different circles. There are small initiatives which need be promoted. Don’t look towards the Government for addressing all our problems; it can only be a facilitator. Grab the opportunity and start identifying solutions and work on them, even if they produce only small results. We also have to consider employment opportunities this sector is coming up with. With Swachch Bharat creating a lot of opportunities, new skills have to be developed too.

ZAKIR: We need to create awareness and provide facilities. Then there are players like us who are ready to reverse what has happened so far. But maintaining it should be the responsibility of local bodies.

SHAMSUDEEN: We are prepared to demonstrate the technology for cleaning water bodies with the support of civic bodies. We are keen on doing it. It needs to be proven, only then we can implement it on a long-term basis.

GOPINATH: Instead of looking at waste or pollution as a problem, look at it as an opportunity. Real change should start from micro level. Link our business with solutions which will also create livelihood options.

VISHWANATHAN: Prioritisation of waste water treatment has to happen in a big way to usher in changes. Awareness helps lead to prioritisation. Today, people are not realising the dangers. It has to be addressed. Information dissemination at all levels is very critical and we all should walk the talk.