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Dirty reality

Print edition : May 04, 2007 T+T-

`Faecal Attraction' takes an unflinching view of urban sewage - what it is doing to our rivers and what it might soon do to our cities.

ANNIE ZAIDI in New Delhi

A DOCUMENTARY film that treats a serious subject with a sense of fun, especially when the issue is as intimate as people's flushing habits, is rare. Faecal Attraction does precisely that. Screened recently in New Delhi, the film takes an unflinching view of sewage - what it is doing to our rivers and what it might soon do to our cities.

The 32-minute film opens with a dark screen and a dialogue between two roadside defecators - with much banter and little embarrassment about the act itself or the hygiene associated with toilet activities. It then cuts to an obviously posh toilet with expensive fittings and the ambient noise of a hundred flushes, and leads to the Yamuna river, reduced to a gutter thanks to all the millions of gallons of filth that is poured into it.

The trouble with urban sewage is that few people are closely linked to the source of the water they use or the way in which the sewage is disposed of. In both cases, it is often the nearest river: in Delhi, the Yamuna, the very river into which more than Rs.2,400 crore has been poured already as part of the Yamuna Action Plan.

Slum-dwellers are often blamed for the water pollution in the city, but it is they who pay the price for ill-conceived sewage disposal and treatment systems. This is what happened in the Yamuna-Pushta belt, from where thousands of families have been evicted, when, in fact, the bulk of the sewage flows into the river from colonies - regular, authorised buildings - that are connected to sewage pipelines. There are unauthorised colonies as well, many of which are surrounded by pools of sewage and blocked drains, which the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) cleans out only before the monsoon so that the neighbouring upmarket buildings do not face a backflow of sewage. The film captures the awful conditions in which these drains are cleaned, by workers who wear no protection and carry only a spade, as well as a verbal battle between residents and the local MCD contractor.

Part of the sewage debacle can be attributed to the unregulated use of groundwater in cities. The municipal authorities have apparently no clue how to monitor water usage. An attempt was made to do so by measuring the volume of drains: a tragic-comic effort that the film-maker, Pradip Saha, puts in perspective through a Chaplinesque scene. A small team is shot in black-and-white silence, and blocks of text point out that the equipment used for the purpose consisted of an ordinary measuring tape, a rope, a ping-pong ball and a stop-clock.

With images of pilgrims at rivers and resounding chants, the film points to the fact that water is worshipped across the country. Yet, things are no different even in Varanasi, where sewage accounts for 95 per cent of the pollution in the Ganga. In Kanpur, the Ganga is no more than a drain, thanks to the barrage constructed in recent years.

Pradip Saha traces the flow from the time a toilet is flushed, using 10 to 12 litres of water, through the drain and to the sewage treatment plants (STPs). Each of the17 STPs in Delhi spends between Rs.5 and 10 lakh to treat one million gallons of sewage; they totally get about 375 million gallons a day. Even so, 45 per cent of the city remains unsewered, and the sewage untreated.

The expense is partly because the STPs have been built far away from the source of sewage, which has to be pumped through pipelines over long distances. Miles and miles of pipes have been bought but lie unused. Once the sewage is treated, the clean water is routed back into the drains - the very drains that carry raw sewage. Much of this filthied water eventually finds its way into the river.

The STPs also consume huge amounts of electricity, which is scarce. Yet, this is one area of concern where there is little innovation or research towards creating alternative models. Increasingly, rivers are tapped and blocked upstream and the polluted water is dumped downstream. This is in keeping with the character of the upwardly mobile new India, which wants more and more resources but is not bothered about environmental or social consequences. In the words of the film, modern, urban India wants not only to flush and forget but to flush and forget in style.

The irony in the scene that follows can only evoke baffled laughter. Inside a sanitary ware showroom, a salesperson introduces us to "three and six litre dual flush system", a western commode imported from Switzerland, another from Italy, from England and from France. One costs Rs.86,000 and another Rs.98,000 "excluding the tap". A gushing stream of water turns to a slight gurgle and then to an excruciatingly slow drip. Meanwhile, elsewhere, the chaos around a water tanker is already turning into a battle. This is not in a slum but in a regular, middle-class colony.

Yet, urban India rarely spares a thought for water or sewage. Towards the end, the camera approaches Delhiites across ages and classes to ask them where their water comes from and where their excreta goes. Most people react with a mixture of nonchalance and embarrassment. Their answers range from "I don't know" to "It [water] just doesn't come" and the hilarious "I don't do anything, everything happens automatically".

Pradip Saha, however, does not stop at pointing to an obvious problem. He has got another short film that offers solutions. Clean Up Your Act - A Guide to Sewage Treatment is filled with information about the components of sewage and alternative models of non-centralised systems. Improved septic tanks are a good idea where there are no sewer lines. There are several places in the country where communities or institutions have taken advantage of natural microbial processes such as aerobic and anaerobic decomposition. In addition to biocatalysts, depending on the space available, the partially clean water can be lead to open ponds, gardens, fields and floating islands, which clean it even further. This helps in agriculture and adds to the green cover in the city. Such natural and economic methods of treatment are being used by a colony in Pune, a temple in Ujjain, a hospital in Puducherry, a five-star hotel in Agra and a diamond factory in Indore. There is no reason why similar methods cannot be used elsewhere. All that people need to do is stop treating their faeces as somebody else's problem.