Decoding Sanitation Skepticism in India: A systemic approach to the circular economy of sanitation





The abundantly ‘shitty’ side of life: human waste. Uncomfortable though it may be to consider, this plentiful natural resource is stimulating endless opportunities around the world. Roughly, a person generates around 250 g excreta a day. For the 1.3 billion people living in India for example, it comes to around 335 million kg of excreta generated every single day. Considering this enormous scale, their ‘poop’ could be the next most important resource for the future.

Only a third of India’s urban houses are connected to a sewer system. In the absence of proper sewerage networks in most cities, the “Clean India Campaign” (Swachh Bharath Mission – SBM) recommended on-site sanitation systems (OSS), such as pit latrines and septic tanks. Most houses thus use toilets connected to septic tanks or pits. Such containment structures generate faecal sludge, which is the slurry that contains both solid and liquid waste that accumulates in on-site sanitation systems.

After containing human waste, the next important questions are: What do you do when your pit or septic tank is full? Where does your ‘shit’ go? After containment of faecal sludge, there are other elements in the sanitation chain that need to be addressed including emptying, transport, treatment and reuse or disposal. Unfortunately, faecal sludge from on-site sanitation systems is often emptied out and disposed of untreated in water bodies, agricultural fields and jungles at an extraordinary cost to public and environmental health. Overall, this means that addressing only ‘toilets’ and achieving Open Defecation Free (ODF) status is not sufficient without a proper faecal sludge management.

In our Securing Water for Food programme, we involve the entire sanitation chain for a circular economy, and discovered exciting opportunities and learned important lessons that I want to share with you in this article.

The Sanitation Chain



A promising partnership for a Clean India

My interest as a Business Developer for Circular Economy of Sanitation for the Dutch NGO, WASTE, lies in looking at the whole sanitation chain. In particular, I am passionate about exploring the ‘circular economy’ business opportunities that can be created by linking sanitation with agriculture and energy sectors. The last years, much of my work has taken place in the Nilgiris District in India, where I have worked closely together with veteran agriculture and rural development specialist, Rajkumar Sampath, of the Rural Development Organization (RDO) Trust based in the horticulture district of the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu, India.

WASTE and RDO Trust have been working together in relation to the “Clean India Campaign “towards providing people with access to toilets in the Nilgiris District under the FINISH programme. Since 2017, our focus has shifted to circular economy of sanitation and solid waste management for agriculture under the Securing Water For Food (SWFF) programme.


Circular economy of sanitation in agriculture under the Securing Water for Food (SWFF) programme

Since 2017, the SWFF programme aims to promote science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water and make more water available for food production, processing and distribution. The current partners in the programme include WASTE as programme lead, RDO Trust, agri-marketing agency LEAF, farmer financiers Canara, ICIC and Sanghamitra Bank, and local governments.

Under the SWFF programme, we go further beyond ‘toilet’ and sanitation. Instead, we establish linkage between sanitation and agriculture sectors by collecting, transporting, processing faecal sludge with organic solid waste for production of ‘co-compost’ that is used by vegetable farmers as soil improver. The overall objective is to establish a local circular economy model in sanitation for agriculture that is scalable and autonomous with mobilisation of private finance and market-linkage approach to advance green growth in the Nilgiris District, India.

Two treatment sites with co-compost production have been established under the programme since 2017. After almost three years of operation, it is exciting to see the positive experiences by the farmers. An evaluation study showed that 90% of the farmers in the programme responds positively on using co-compost. The farmers have observed better yield in terms of size, colour, skin and taste of the vegetables. And for example, the carrot, the golden crop of the Nilgiris, has performed well with a 14% increase in the production after using the co-compost innovation. At the same time, substantial crop diversification can be seen. Crops like flowers, strawberry, fenugreek and capsicum were introduced after the access to the co-compost innovation.


Anita, at Ketti Resource Recovery Park


A holistic approach to circular economy of sanitation in agriculture

Despite of the excitement from seeing the results on the ground on the beneficial linkages between sanitation and agriculture, this journey of circular economy of sanitation for agriculture in the Nilgiris has seen their ups and downs. One thing was clear: Innovation in co-composting technology alone was not sufficient. A systemic approach integrating social, technical, financial, business and institutional aspects is required to establish a sustainable circular economy model of sanitation for agriculture. My key learnings:


Social acceptance and trust by vegetable farmers for using faecal-sludge based co-compost

Thanks to the relationship that RDO Trust has with the farmers, they have been able to work closely with vegetable farmers to demonstrate that the co-compost made from faecal sludge is safe and beneficial for vegetable crops. This is done through sharing of laboratory results of co-compost made with farmers, community meetings and on-site demonstrations. It is imperative to work closely with the farmers to achieve social acceptance for utilizing faecal sludge as a resource. Fortunately, farmers in the Nilgiris are open to co-compost. In other parts of India, the situations are most likely different. Social acceptance is an on-going process of knowledge sharing and trust building.


Integration of sanitation with solid waste management for a sustainable circular economy model

When we address the circular economy of sanitation in agriculture with co-compost production, it is impossible to do it without addressing solid waste management. A larger part of co-compost comprises of organic solid waste, such as kitchen and market waste. Unfortunately, in a lot of cases, mixed solid waste is received at the treatment site. This results in additional works required to sort organic and non-organic waste at the site, which leads to additional operational costs. For this reason, it is critical to have an on-site segregation between organic and non-organic solid waste. This way, the treatment site will receive higher quality and quantity of organic solid waste for co-compost production as well as higher quality and quantity of non-organic waste (recyclables) that can be sold as additional revenue sources and strengthen the financial sustainability of the treatment site.


Multiple revenue sources and low operational cost to increase the financial sustainability of a treatment site

In addition to the sale of co-compost, other revenue sources need to be explored to support the financial sustainability of the treatment site. When segregation between organic and non-organic solid waste is in place, then sale of multiple recyclables (non-organic waste) serves as a clear revenue source of a treatment site. Additionally, tipping fees should be charged to private emptiers who dispose their faecal sludge at the treatment site, as it is also in their interest to empty their collection truck so that they can continue their emptying business for other customers. These tipping fees could only be enforced when the government implements penalties for illegal dumping of faecal sludge by private operators.


An enabling policy and regulations for circular economy of sanitation in agriculture

Currently, there are national standards and regulations for quality of compost (made only from organic solid waste), though not yet for co-compost made from faecal sludge. For this reason, we have customised our own quality standards based on international standards such as the World Health Organisation and EU Commission as our product quality assurance measure. Standards and regulations around the product quality of faecal-sludge based products need to be made clear to support general acceptance of co-compost made from faecal sludge. Additionally, as mentioned earlier, there needs to be stricter enforcement on safe disposal of faecal sludge by emptiers to allocated disposal/treatment sites in order to secure sourcing of faecal sludge input for production of co-compost as well as to enable the charging of tipping fees to private emptiers.


A solid Public-Private Partnership as operational model of a treatment site

A clear operational model of a treatment site is required to ensure that operation continues even after programmes, such as the SWFF programme, end. Within SWFF, we are working to institutionalise women Self-Help Group (SHG) members towards becoming a social enterprise to take up the business activities at the treatment site including sale of co-compost and recyclables. Hand-holding support has been given and the SHG ladies have been very cooperative and proactive in the process. An independent bank account has been made for the ladies. As the next step, we are setting up a revolving fund to be used by the group to start-up their business. On-going engagement will be continued with the government so that they can understand the benefits of a Public Private Partnership model to increase efficiency and financial sustainability of a treatment site.




Looking beyond toilets: Working towards replication of circular economy of sanitation models

The energy on the ground in the Nilgiris is enabling us to initiate circular economy of sanitation in agriculture activities in Odisha – another Indian state eager for a sanitation revolution – as well as in the Busia county in Kenya. In Tanzania, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Uganda, we are also looking into these possibilities of linking sanitation and the energy sectors. Think about business in briquette or biogas.  Your ‘poop’ could truly be the next most important resource for the future.

Although private funding and private sector involvement in the field of faecal sludge treatment and reuse is still limited, the number of active implementing organisations in the field that is driven by the cause, challenge and vision to drive the progress towards financial sustainability of faecal sludge management and circular economy of sanitation is growing.

With one of the largest populations in the world, managing India’s human waste abundance proves vital to the health of its people and environment, meanwhile providing immense opportunities for local entrepreneurs in the circular economy of sanitation and solid waste management. Innovating on faecal sludge management and solid waste is proving to have cross-cutting impacts in almost every facet of the communities’ lives, from improved sanitation and solid waste management to replenishing the depleted soil, enhancing food security, encouraging the use of renewable energy – the linkages are endless.



If this article inspired you to learn more about this life-changing business of sanitation and solid waste, there is a network platform made for matchmaking between investors & implementer in sanitation and faecal sludge management:

Opinion piece by WASTE Foundation Business Developer for Circular Economy of Sanitation, Priska Prasetya. For more information on WASTE or the SWFF programme, please contact Priska at – <pprasetya[at]>