On Tuesday, the United Nations marked its inaugural World Toilet Day, designed to draw attention to the fact that more than one-sixth of humanity still lacks indoor sanitation, and that the world needs new ideas and technologies to deal with one of the most basic human needs.

If there is any one country toward which such initiatives must be aimed, then that is India, where a combination of ignorance, apathy, embarrassment, deeply ingrained cultural codes, ineffective policy, huge numbers and very different urban and rural sanitation challenges have meant that more than half of the population still doesn’t have access to a proper toilet.

This troubling state of affairs has far-reaching consequences, for instance, in the realms of gender rights and freedoms and education—and the perpetuation of the terrible Indian practice of manual scavenging. But it also creates a challenge that immediately compounds itself several times over: untreated waste usually remains within range of further human contact, and leads to a wide range of health issues from diarrhea to the contamination of water sources, even entire rivers.

The attitudes toward and realities of human waste in India have allowed for great, visceral cinema that would be hard to do elsewhere. Take the scene of mingled disgust and laughter when the child-hero jumps with a huge splash into the fetid community pond in “Slumdog Millionaire."

The World Bank’s recent study “Economic Impacts of Inadequate Sanitation in India" estimated that sanitation deficits cost the country about 6.4% of its 2006 gross domestic product (GDP)—a kind of hidden toilet tax that disproportionately affects the poor and makes them even poorer. To put it another way, as much as better economic policies, a better tax system or more foreign investment inflows, it’s the humble toilet that can be an engine of future Indian growth.

But what kind of toilet is needed? This is at least as great a conundrum as that of there being not enough toilets in Indian slums—often there can be one for anywhere between 100 to 1,000 residents—or why such toilets become unworkable, or the millions of “missing" or “dead" toilets that have allegedly been built by the government but don’t exist or are out of use.

It has become clear that in water-scarce and people-dense India, it’s an impossible resource challenge to deliver the conventional flush toilet to more than 1 billion people and then treat the sewage water. The environmentalist Anil Agarwal coined the phrase “the political economy of defecation" to provoke policymakers to consider the many hidden costs and pro-rich biases of the current paradigm of flush toilets and sewage disposal. Agarwal’s ideas were amplified by Sunita Narain in 2002, in an article in which she argues that what works in a Western context is “ecologically mindless" in an Indian one. After all, only 13% of piped sewage in India is currently treated. Lester Brown writes in a recent book on urban water policy:

“As currently designed, India’s sewer system is actually a pathogen-dispersal system. It takes a small quantity of contaminated material and uses it to make vast quantities of water unfit for human use. With this system, Narain says, both our rivers and our children are dying. India’s government, like that of many developing countries, is hopelessly chasing the goal of universal water-based sewage systems and sewage treatment facilities—unable to close the huge gap between services needed and provided, but unwilling to admit that it is not an economically viable option.

One notable, and successful, indigenous contribution has been the “compost toilet" that was invented and widely propagated by the Indian social reformer Bindeshwar Pathak and his organization Sulabh International. This toilet requires 90% less water than the conventional flush toilet, and it leads excreta into a two-pit system where it is converted into compost over an 18-month period. More than 1 million such toilets are in use in India.

Even if you think of compost toilets as the concern only of radical greens in the West and the poor in the developed world, or that we’re now too deeply invested technologically and psychologically in the flush-toilet-and-sewage-treatment system to think of radically reshaping it, it’s clear that we should all think about how a reinvented toilet might work. (As the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets in New Delhi demonstrates, even our current systems are only a little more than a century old.)

Last month, the Indian government announced it was partnering with the Gates Foundation to put up $2 million as source capital for the winner of the “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge—India." The competition follows a similar one last year, won by a team from Caltech. It hopes to announce a winner on 22 March 2014. It defines the problem its goals in this way:

Solving the sanitation challenge in the developing world will require radically new innovations that are deployable on a large scale....

To this end, the goal of the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge—India is to fund a portfolio of Indian-led pilot projects that seek to contribute innovations that can be incorporated into a next generation toilet that will reduce the burden of excreta- related disease and improve the lives of the poor. The aim is to expand the use of toilet and sanitation technologies that do not connect to a sewer, as this is by far the most common approach used by the poor.

Can this be done without making the technology beyond the reach of the poor? That is what environmental engineer Jason Kass seemed to suggest in an op-ed in the New York Times, “Bill Gates Can’t Build A Toilet." And Bindeshwar Pathak has reason to be displeased that his own efforts in this field have been bypassed for the sake of something more edgy. Last, can we continue to think of toilets as being divided, like mankind, into two classes, those of the rich and those of the poor? I was struck—though I’m not entirely persuaded this is feasible—by Narain’s radical argument that any new-age toilet must be implemented at the level of policy as a toilet for all:

The most important issue is that these “alternative" technologies must be for the rich and not just for the poor. If ecosanitation technologies are “cost effective" technologies to serve the “unserved" poor, these will only be an interim alternative, one to be discarded as soon as people become rich. We have to remember that it is the rich person’s flush that is the biggest environmental culprit today.

The flush toilet is justly seen by many as perhaps mankind’s greatest invention, but it may be time to think of it as just a prolonged stage and not the end of history. Bloomberg

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View.

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