Apr 1, 2010

Urine can replace chemical fertiliser. It is happening in Delhi outskirts

When I was a student at Palampur in Himachal Pradesh, and that was more than 30 years ago, I vividly recall the day I was walking with my agronomy professor. We passed a student who was urinating -- like a typical Indian, standing by the roadside in the comfort of a bush -- and the professor exclaimed: "He is providing nitrogen for the plant."

We laughed, and walked by. I must accept that it didn't strike me that in reality urine does provide the much needed nitrogen.

More recently, I was attending a conference at the swanky Indian Institute of Management (IIM) campus in Bangalore. I went to the loo, and was surprised to read a small message above the toilet seat, saying something like: 'This toilet does not flush. Please do not pour water after you have used it'. I thought this must be some latest sophisticated technology that only IIM could afford (with all its government subsidies). I did think of checking it out with IIM fellows later but the moment I was back in the conference hall it was all but forgotten.

Not a pleasant sight. But turning urine into an economic activity will probably put a stop to this. 

Like most of us, I do talk but rarely believe in following the traditional wisdom. We are so indoctrined by the craze for new technological gadgets that somehow we have been made to believe that only new technological tools (coming mostly from the west) will solve all our problems. So just sit back, and wait.

We all laugh whenever there is a reference to the urine therapy that former Prime Minister Morarji Desai used to subscribe to. It doesn't suit our lifestyle, nor our mindset which have been programmed to accept only tasty processed (and unhealthy) products. So for a moment I was taken back when I read in Business Standard the other day that urine is replacing urea fertiliser in the outskirts of Delhi.

My thoughts immediately returned to what my professor had said years back.

Writing in Business Standard (Mar 29, 2010), Kalpana Jain says: "On the outskirts of Delhi, a little-known non-government organisation, Fountain for Development Research and Action, is laying the ground for the first urine bank. It has diverted urine from two schools, where it has installed odour-free urinals, into a tank and transferred the run-off to a village nearby for use as fertiliser." 

I think there can be nothing more exciting than this news. Especially for a country like India, which many believe is an open urinal, imagine if we could collect all the urine that continues to flow endlessly. With 1.1 billion people, India could literally clean-up its surroundings, and provide a clean odourless environment. Imagine walking into a building and searching for a washroom. Normally you don't have to look for the signs pointing you to the washroom, the stink coming from one corner tells you where the toilet is.

To rephrase what Kalpana Jain says it takes the stink out of urine, literally and metaphorically.

Anyway, the urine therapy can be a boon to agriculture. Chemical fertilisers have already played havoc with the soil health, polluted the groundwater, lakes and rivers and also drained the exchequer as well as emptied the farmers pockets. There is a desperate need to replace urea -- the common nitrogen fertiliser -- and I can see the potential in human urine. I would look forward to the day when Chambal fertilisers, National Fertiliser Ltd (NFL) and our fertiliser cooperatives -- IFFCO and KRIBHCO -- start investing on urine collection and evolve a supply chain linking it to the farms.

Interesting to hear that Germany is already making money from selling urine. “Communities in Germany are exporting urine to neighbouring countries that are using it on their farms, says Chariar, explaining how it could be diverted for use as a nutrient by a simple plumbing." Dr V M Chariar is an assistant professor at the IIT Delhi who has developed a simple technology, called Zerodor, that fits into the waste coupler in the pan and diverts the urine through a drain where it is collected and harvested. The idea is not to allow it to mix with water at any stage.

IIT Delhi uses the Zerodor technology. In other words, what I saw at IIM Bangalore was probably Zerodor technology.

India can surely pip Germany in the race to make economic gains from collecting and selling urine. More than exporting urine to neighbouring countries (I am sure South Asia will never have any shortage!), I see its huge potential in restoring soil fertility within the country. If you think urine will stink, think again. Dr Chariar tells us that urine smells only when mixed with water.

According to the report, Delhi government too uses the technology in 200 of its public urinals. In the forthcoming Commonwealth Games, the Delhi government is planning to install 1000 such urinals. I only hope that the Delhi government does not drain the urine collected during the games into the Yamuna river, but provides it to fertilise the farms in the outskirts of the National Capital Region (NCR).

We can't wait anymore. India should immediately go in for replacing the toilet seats throughout the country (including, at the household level) with zerodor technology. Every time you go to the loo, for hardly 250 ml of urine that you spill, you flush out almost 12 litres of water. This criminal wastage of water must stop, and nothing better to bring in a technology that does not require water in urinals. No one will complain.

You can read Kalpana Jain's full report, entitled "Urine-processing technologies yield rich cash flow potential" at: http://epaper.business-standard.com/bsepaper/svww_zoomart.php?


Anonymous said...

I am happy to share with you the practice which is followed in my ancestral home where all the children and male members urinate under coconut trees. When we were children my brothers used to adopt one coconut tree and compete with each other .We used to make a lot of fun when people go out in the night to urinate . Now even for fun people have to pay and this has become an industrial product .

I think the most tragic impact of globalisation is on human intelligence and creativity( apart from environmental devastation)

I hope this initiative by a small group will soon be accepted by all farmers and become a real revolution in the farming sector


Anonymous said...

How can I buy a Zerodor for a home urine storage system in the US?



Devinder Sharma said...

Please write to Dr V M Chariar at vijayaraghavan.chariar@gmail.com

Devinder Sharma