• Angad Chowdhry

To Flush and Forget?

Updated: Aug 21, 2020

Source: Unsplash by Sincerely Media

Let us tell you a love story or a prem katha about…a toilet.

Keshav meets Jaya and they fall in love. They get married to live happily ever after, but there’s a twist.

Keshav does not have a toilet in his house so Jaya relieves herself in the fields as part of an age old tradition. Feeling unsafe and ashamed, she presents Keshav with an ultimatum — build a toilet in their house otherwise she will leave. Does this sound familiar?

If it does, it is the story of the Bollywood movie Toilet — Ek Prem Katha starring the infamous Akshay Kumar. This story was inspired by the real life event of a woman from Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh who refused to marry a groom when he did not build a toilet in his house. This inspired other women to demand the same of their to-be husbands. The event and movie represents how toilets have become a symbol of nationalistic pride after the Government of India launched the Clean India Mission (Swacch Bharat Mission) in 2014.

In the end, Keshav builds a toilet but he is still doing what millions of other Indians are — he is flushing and forgetting about what happens after.

What could happen when you flush and forget? Well, depending on your human waste disposal management, feces that are flushed out of toilets enter into soil and groundwater. From there it seeps into crops, vegetables and nearby water.

Eventually, those items end up on your plate as food. This is where understanding fecal sludge management becomes important.

What is Fecal Sludge Management and Why Should We Care? 

When we flush, the mixture that seems to spiral into an abyss is called fecal sludge. Fecal sludge is a mixture of poop, water, and solid wastes (e.g. toilet paper, sanitary pads). It accumulates into a container or chamber where it is transported to a treatment centre. At the centre, the fecal sludge is treated and safely disposed or reused into animal food or for irrigation. This entire process from containment to treatment is called fecal sludge management (FSM).

FSM services are usually provided by private and government. However, in India, only 30% of the fecal sludge generated goes to treatment plants while 70% is dumped into rivers, seas, lakes and wells. Untreated human waste that is dumped into open water and land leads to contamination.

What does this mean? It is an alarming reminder that feces (or poop to be less technical) can end up in the very water you drink and the food you eat. This causes preventable illnesses such as diarrhoea — which is the third leading cause of childhood mortality in India.

Without treatment in India, the 120,000 tons of human waste produced everyday — which can fill up several cricket stadiums — is a looming crisis. Quilt.AI’s research found that people are taking matters into their own hands (not literally!).

The Cleaner, the Healthier

The Clean India Mission aimed to end open defecation and has built 102 million toilets so far. Over 5 years, toilets cropped up from the most remotely located households to the heart of bustling cities. Behaviour change campaigns to promote use of the toilet and hygienic practices also led to 98% (706) of districts declared as open-defecation free. Building a toilet in a household or community can be life-changing — it promotes sanitation while providing people with dignity and preventing illnesses that stunt children’s growth. However, building a toilet is not enough if the fecal waste is not managed and treated safely.

Quilt.AI analysed 9.2 million searches, 36,515 blogs, forums news, and 778 YouTube videos in 45 Indian cities to find out more about the discourse around fecal sludge management .

More People are Seeking Solutions

Clean India Mission’s publicity has reached every corner of the country, as it dominated searches from 2014 till 2019. A majority of the searches are applications for people to build their own toilets which surged in 2017 to 2018.

This has led to more people being aware of sanitation that comes with toilets and flushing. But in the FSM cycle, there is limited awareness among people beyond toilets.

There are some gradual increases in searches for treating water contamination and FSM which suggests interest and engagement in an otherwise invisible and squeamish topic.

The “upward drift” also signifies solution-seeking behaviour with a 32% increase in searches for ‘DIY’ water cleaning alternatives. There was also a 21% growth in searching for composting (dry/flush waterless toilet), and eco alternatives that avoid groundwater pollution (e.g. “benefits of composting, “can you compost human waste, DIY composting toilet”).

Word cloud of searches

YouTube — The Sanitation Destination for Solutions!

As more people search about FSM, YouTube is emerging as a popular space with a wide range of available videos related to sanitation. A majority of videos are Swachh Bharat related — from educational videos to user-generated content with celebrities and leaders pioneering the mission.

The second-highest number of videos are educating people on fecal sludge management. These videos use supportive language framed by leaders as a ‘mission’ where it connotes a ‘greatness’ and national pride in keeping communities clean.

Third, videos around citizen ‘edu-tainment’ videos on solid waste management promote composting practices like building your own toilet and reusing waste material. These videos provide a foundational understanding for anyone who wants to learn about fecal and sewage management by:

  1. Sharing advice on how to properly manage waste (e.g. building a composting toilet to applying for a toilet)

  2. Interventionist/activist messages that signal an understanding that it requires a community effort for change

  3. People can be an extension of organizations’ or governments’ work in promoting proper FSM methods

YouTube is providing solution-seekers with direction and has the potential to reach more people. To test some of our insights, we ran an awareness campaign with online nudges to increase awareness on FSM.

Personalising the Problem Can Work

Using Quilt.AI's proprietary Cultural AI tools, we analyzed trends and found that making FSM an important topic meant personalising messages. We used our AI tools to create and target ads and redirected people's searches to accurate and informative content on sewage plants, septic tanks, and sewage at home.

Examples of personalised ads

The campaign reached 771,836 people online and showed positive shifts in awareness. There was a 20% increase in searches for information on sewage, a 10% growth in searches for septic tanks, and 20% growth in home sewage systems. These promising results show that with the right messaging and information, people may also be driven to act.

Our Recommendations

Fecal sludge management may be a challenging issue to mobilise around and digital interventions are difficult to imagine. However, our insights and campaign results bust this myth and are a testament to the fact that people are looking for solutions online.

As toilets enter mass media efforts, and even Bollywood, the way to move forward is to make the issue personal.

People initiate responsibility by taking fecal sludge management into their own hands and some ideas to catalyse them to action are:

  1. Raise awareness by linking the issue to the “person” and framing it as a neighborhood/home problem (e.g. Did you know poop remains in other parts of your house? Learn more on keeping your loved ones clean and healthy)

  2. Build messages in between the private and public spheres of influence in the FSM process — containing human waste (e.g. toilets) and emptying the system (e.g. Keep your toilets from clogging and house from smelling — find out what happens after you flush)

  3. Place solutions in the hands of people through more Do-It-Yourself content that incorporates localised solutions (e.g. 5 eco-friendly solutions to stop feces from ending up in your food).

In an increasingly populous country such as India, building toilets to flush and then forget has limited impact. To continue building a cleaner and healthier nation, it is high time that Number 2 became Number 1 on everyone’s minds.

If you enjoyed reading this post, you might also like: How Girls in India Are Embracing the Internet Talking to Young Men About Sexual and Reproductive Health & Rights Young People’s Attitudes Towards Family Planning in North India

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