10/12/2011

Business models and policies in human waste management

S. Vishwanath (Adviser to Arghyam a foundation working on water and sanitation projects around India and Founder of the Rain Water Club ) shifted gears and took us through the evolving business models and policies in human waste management.
Meeting S. Vishwanath ((@zenrainman) via discussions through the micro blogging site Twitter is one of those experiences that keeps me, personally, hooked to the power of social media. I was intrigued by his points of view on the process of Policy creation. Discovering that he is a fellow Bangalorean, I traveled to north Bangalore to catch up with him. And through this I discovered a part of the city that’s completely new to me – and had a hugely insightful discussion with someone who has an inspiring depth of insights, action and perspectives on water, waste management.
The addition of over 3 million people to Bangalore just in the last decade has put huge pressure on the water treatment and waste management systems of the city. Only 50% of the homes are connected to an old and aging system of sanitation (Read More). The rest have to manage with septic tanks and such. But without any clear policy of how and where this waste will be managed, much of it flows into the lakes of Bangalore along with industrial waste causing alarming levels of pollution, affecting the ground water over 100 kilometers outside Bangalore.

As the city bludgeons, clearly the Government cannot keep up. Water is more or less privatized with over 50% of the city’s supplies coming in via water Trucks that will deliver drinking water to your door-step at a cost. The locally modified Honey Sucker Trucks use the same enterprise principal and do the same for human waste.

There are over 300 of these bright yellow trucks that you will see zipping across Bangalore.

With an unbeatable 10-minute promise, and for a small fee, these enterprising truck drivers will bring in their super suction pumps, clean up your septic tank and leave your home within 10-15 minutes. The waste is taken to the outskirts of Bangalore where Farmers are having a huge challenge with fertilizers and the costs of farm input. Human excreta, a rich source of the necessary nutrients as manure becomes a resource that can be ‘leveraged’. Farmers pay the trucks to dump the waste into pits where it’s transformed into manure for the farms.

This model today is running because of the enterprise of a bunch of truck drivers and farmers who have found a way to convert waste into a purposeful resource in an economically sustainable manner. It’s a naturally evolved prototype of an idea that can spearhead some really meaningful reform in waste management policy – IF one chooses to see it in that light.

A debate ensues in the Alchemix Session. Allow the Honey sucker model to run in the form of private enterprise? AND/ OR integrate it into a policy for waste management that rewards citizens for using such sustainable methods for waste management? But to really make it policy it would be critical to look at the entire lifecycle and formalize how this could be scaled – right? How can the waste be stored and converted into Manure at a large scale? How many farmers can really use and work with this type of waste? How can you incentivise citizens to use this process? Who puts in the infrastructure costs for expanding this model? (Each truck costs approximately Rupees 7.5 Lakh, breaking even in a 12-month cycle) Should farmers be responsible for the painful process of transforming the waste into usable manure? What is the responsibility of urban dwellers that are producing the waste? The current model is working on small-scale private enterprise (truck drivers become truck owners), should this be corporatized?

Several different perspectives emerge as we discuss the layers of this challenge – and what constitutes good policy and how these entrepreneurial experiments can be leveraged as working models, becoming the basis for sustainable policy.

Vishwanath makes a fundamental point, effective policy also needs an able institution that has the intent AND the ability to execute effective policy – which is not necessarily available right now.

Clearly, a single session cannot arrive at any conclusive points of movement, but the interactions between the diverse audience group and the practitioner experts throw up some pointers on the elements of innovative policy creation:

  • Bring together a diverse groups of practitioners, researchers and interested citizens to articulate the real challenge
  • Identify the range of ideas that are already active on the periphery of ‘structured solutions’. Ideas that have evolved through the enterprise of people – someone has always found a shorter, more economical route that is far more effective
  • Identify the layers of the solution that would make it more scalable – through democratic debate anchored by an enlightened orchestrator (can the Government ever be this??)
  • Build out ‘ecosystem models’ that elaborate on the interrelationships between the stakeholders involved in the solution
  • Identify a series of pilots that could experiment with a range of solutions – essentially seeking ‘scale insights’
  • Convert to version 1 policy based on successful Pilots
  • Evolve Policy through a few versions of pilots over a 5-6 year period till it has been use-case tested across a range of pressures
  • Confirm and crystallize the final policy

Much, much easier said than done, no doubt!!


But it’s exciting to know that a framework can be evolved through dialogue, debate and discussion. Huge thanks to Vishwanath for initiating the start point for such a great debate – and for bringing alive the discussion at the Alchemix Session! More discussions coming up.

Want to know more about the Rainwater Club? Find it here

Seeking more information about Biome Solutions?

More reading on water, waste and sanitation is available here.

Curtsy - http://innovationalchemy.com

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