Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Smart Sanitation: Shimla Sets an Example

A couple of days back, I read this really great news about Shimla - a hill station in the north of India: the popular tourist hub is aiming for smart sanitation by installing hundreds of E-toilets.

Now, what is E-toilet? Well, its an unmanned toilet which cleans itself, one that's based on a sensor-based technology.

Let me explain a little more.  As you see in the photo below, the toilet has a locked door. Now, when you want to use it, you insert a coin to open the door. As the door opens, the toilet's sensor-based light system is automatically turns on - pretty much like the way your ATM teller machine turns on when you swipe your card.
An E-toilet. Courtesy: Eram Scientific

And, just like the ATM machine, the toilet also will direct you with audio commands. This means, you will be directed on how to use the toilet.

To conserve water, the toilets are programmed to flush 1.5 liter of water after three minutes of usage and 4.5 liters if the usage is longer. This “smart” toilet also washes the platform by itself after every five or 10 persons use the toilet. An instructional note is pasted outside the toilet to make the user familiar with the functioning of this toilet. The auto flush goes off on its own and uses just the right amount of water that is needed - not less and not more.

 But why is Shimla adopting e-toilet, instead of building more of the old-style conventional toilets?

There are many reasons behind that and saving water is one of them, says the mayor of the city, Sanjay Chauhan. According to Chauhan, E-toilets require little water compared to the traditional ones. They are self-cleaning and equipped with latest technology. What's more, these toilets are portable which means, they can be installed and relocated  and reinstalled anywhere.

As a popular tourist destination, Shimla receives more than 10 million tourists every year. As expected, the number of  shops, malls and eateries in the city is also ever increasing. And all these means the city needs more water and more toilets than ever before.

To ignore this need could mean a number of risks: 1) forcing both the residents (including those who work in the tourism industry) and the tourists live in unhygienic conditions with stinking toilets. 2) pushing the city towards a serious water crisis, 3) a serious health crisis like an epidemic  and least but not last, frustrate the tourists and see them return disappointed, vowing never to return.

Shimla in the winter
Obviously, the water-saving automated toilets promise to be a boon for the city. The problem, however, is that its not cheap. According to Mayor Chauhan, each of the toilets will cost the city half a million rupees. The Mayor's immediate plan is to build 125 toilets (some of them will also be installed inside shopping malls) and if you put together their prices, we are looking at 6.8 million rupees which does seem a bit staggering.

But then again, this will definitely be cheaper than what poor sanitation - especially a public health crisis  - could actually cost the city such as a sharp decline in the tourism revenues. No wonder, the city administration is ready to bear the cost - a smart decision indeed!

But Shimla is not the only hill station in India to struggle with a growing tourism industry and with a rapidly growing demand for water and toilets. There are dozens of others. Take Darjeeling - the well known tea-producing hills station in the east, for example. The city faces acute water crisis every so often. Recently, I read this Facebook post that painted a very honest - and disturbing - image of the city's sanitation scenario: "“Offices galore, but where are the toilets?”"

Ooty, another hill station has also been reported  several times to be struggling with water shortage . In fact, the name of hill cities that with a chronic challenge of water and sanitation can be quite long.

World over today, 'Smart City'  is becoming a buzzword and  sustainable development is fast becoming the benchmark of good governance. This is why, it will be both smart and wise on the part of all of these cities to follow the precedent Shimla has been setting, and adopt sanitation facilities that are resource-saving, convenient and user-friendly.

Yes, there is this high-cost factor. But then, cities can always partner with corporates or other funding agencies - not just at the local or national level, but also with the international ones, can't they?

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