South Asia is a basket with a regionful of problems, or a region with a basketful of problems, whatever. But the triumph of and challenge for our land is in the way in which we deal with human output of the most material kind. I mean excreta.
Just as we are what we eat, we are also (slightly circularly) what we digest. It is the spreading of wastes into the fields and terraces that has so added to the agricultural fertility of the vast and fruitful plains of the Indus and Ganga. In these tropics, the sunshine and humidity help bacteria to grow. Decay is the order of the day, which leads to plant productivity. Organic breakdown adds to the humus, already rich with Himalayan silt and plant detritus.
Agricultural fertility delivers human fertility. High density of population leads to urban civilisations that in turn serve up high culture, flowering of the arts, and great architecture. The finest cities of our pre-colonial collective past – Lahore, Lucknow, Delhi, Kathmandu – derived their grandeur from the fertility of the next door fields.
Talking of density of population, you now know why South Asia houses a sixth of all humanity, at last count. Over millennia, human wastes got spread out in a thin layer over the land. China outstripped us to become more populous simply because the Chinese are more systematic in distributing the substance to the fields. Night soil transport has social sanction, whereas we prefer to leave it to gravity to transfer the slurry unto the potato patch.
Sadly, even the age-old custom/wisdom of visiting the maidaan behind the cloak of the morning mist is now threatened. The commode, the cistern, the sewer system and treatment ponds are like a dagger to the heart of South Asian oneness with nature. No longer is the organic waste of our metabolism left to rot, dry, dissipate and distribute as goo and dust. We now flush it down the toilet with a surfeit of precious treated tap water, with a lot of soaps and detergents added which retard bacterial activity. If not into the septic tank, the waste finds itself in aeration ponds. Not good.
Elsewhere, the slurry is dumped directly into streams and rivers, depriving the soil of the product of our labours. Nature way right through geological and historical time has been to have soil interact with animal faeces. But now, we globalised prudes with middle class morality imported together with cotton from Newcastle think that gunk is evil, good only to be flushed.
Friends, if we forget how our fields became fertile, we forget a part of our history! Depriving the Indo-Gangetic soil of the nourishment it has received for at least 5000 years of human settlement invites civilisational collapse. There comes a defining moment in the evolution of modern society when things begin to spiral out of control, and with us in South Asia this will happen about the time that the sewers begin to work. Archaeological excavation has shown (if I have not been told this then I am saying it) that the Harappan civilisation collapsed when they introduced a sewer system. And god only knows why Dwarka sank into the Arabian Sea.
Imagine the village of your (or your parents’) childhood, and remember the place where the goods ended up behind the paikhana, and the vigorous growth amidst swarming flies of the best of fruits, legumes and leafy vegetables. Our ancestors always knew that the best grapefruits or lemons came from the trees that grew over in that corner, by the toilet soakpit. Household heads happily crunched into their cucumbers knowing but not asking where it came from. We know that back during the reign of the great emperor Chandragupta Maurya, none of the courtiers dared tell him the provenance of his much beloved Langda mangoes. You had better believe this.
The best national politicians of today are those whose olfactory senses still subconsciously hanker for the pungency of the open pit toilet, the healthy buzz of creatures at work, the sense of chlorophyll growth at the true grassroots. Such politicians are the true sons of the soil. They understand that this pungency – removed city elites call it ‘stench’ – is part and parcel of the evolution of humanity. They also accept that something is lost when we have dry bathrooms – which should be an oxymoron – where form certainly does not follow function. How can it, when the toilet now looks like a futuristic throne, and why have we South Asians welcomed the commode into our homes like a cherished bride?
If the modernisation of South Asian society in the 21st century is not to falter before it has even begun, then we must find a way to counter the takeover of the commode. What is the way out? As I have been reminded so many times in my travels from the corridor of Wakhan to the cape of Comorin, “No problem to point only, solution also tell”.
So suggestion herewith is. Let us do away with all sewer lines and septic tanks in this land of our ancestors, now ours. Let the glob just develop in size, and then let us use it. In the cities, instead of garbage collection, let there be garage treatment, where the best portions are dried and sold as Grade One Soil. In the villages, let us go back to oneness with nature.
If you insist, some non-odorous method can be developed for the collection, putrefaction and distribution. Have faith in South Asian ingenuity, for is it not we who developed the zero, chess, the aeroplane and the participatory rural appraisal (PRA) model? But really, we should be able to stand the smell if civilisationally we grew up with it. The symbiotic link between what we eat and what we beget needs to be re-established. Chalo.