Overcoming Sanitation Skepticism with Circular Economy in Sanitation for Indian Agriculture

India has a population of 1. 3 billion people. It is estimated that a half billion of that number will conduct their daily constitutional —defecate—into streams and fields and not toilets. 

Open defecation has been called India’s most intransigent habit. It has been like that throughout the country’s history. This is the case, even though today 94 percent of the population has toilets. However, many feel it is more sanitary to use the great outdoors as opposed to toilets. Some believe the toilets are poorly constructed. Mostly, however, they askew in-door sanitation out of custom. 

The government, under a program called “Swachh Bharat Mission” (Clean India), embarked on a campaign in 2014 to make the country more sanitation friendly. There has been progress, but there is a long way to go. 

Into this picture enters a Dutch NGO called WASTE, a young advisor on sanitation and solid waste management, Priska Prasetya, and a veteran on-site project manager, Rajkumar Sampath of the RDO TrustThey were involved in the early stages encouraging and aiding in the supply of toilets. Now, however, their program is developing a circular economy through more progressive sanitation methods.

When they see higher yields with better-looking crops, they become believers 

The aim is not just better sanitation but to also help local farmers in the Nilgiris area of India, which is a popular tourist region, to increase their crop yields through a circular economy.  The project called for the capture of gray water from households to flow into farm ponds for use in irrigation and also black fecal water which would be turned into compost. The water would be available for irrigation and the compost —manufactured in centrally located plants utilizing mostly women labor—would provide a nutrient-loaded soil for healthier crops and increased yield. 

However, the cultural and sensitivity problems that impacts society’s use of toilets also are present in the use of compost from fecal sludge being used on farm plots. Farmers have to be convinced it’s safe. 

By working closely with the farmers, the farmers, including the Brahmins, are open to using co-compost for their crops. It is important to produce co-compost as demanded by the market with continuous feedback sessions with farmers and ongoing product development. Ms. Prasetya, who lives in Wageningen but is from Indonesia, said too often the excrement ends up in rivers where people bath. “Our goal is to collect fecal matter and turn it into rich compost.”

WASTE has long been active in urban development and environmental areas. 

WASTE represented by Ms. Prasetya and RDO Trust represented by Rajkumar Sampath was recently selected to attend the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in The Hague sponsored by the Dutch government and the US State Department. WASTE is partially funded by the Securing Water for Food (SWFF) program, a joint effort of USAID, and the governments of the Netherlands, Sweden, and South Africa. The NGO entered into a rigorous competition to become one of the SWFF innovator projects around the world. 

“We have to create a social acceptance of the farmers,” said Ms. Prasetya, “We see this is happening. However, it is an educational process and takes time.”

The best evidence of success comes with the product that comes from the ground. “When they see higher yields with better-looking crops, they become believers,” she said.


USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $34 million in Securing Water for Food (SWFF) to promote science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water and/or make more water available for food production, processing, and distribution.

This story was developed through the SWFF Social Impact Storytelling Initiative which was established to document innovator journeys and social impact as they work to improve the way water is being used for agriculture. #socialimpact #innovation #agriculture #water