Transformation In Leh: Is it in the desired direction?

Urbanisation has its own perks but it can turn out to be a bane for the citizens if not done in the right direction. Shift from dry toilets to flush toilets is an increasing trend in Leh city but due to lack of proper sewage system, the streams as well as the ground water are getting contaminated

Transformation in Leh, the capital city of Ladakh, is evidently happening. The town has a census population of over 20,000, but the officials put the figure near 40,000. The migrant workers are not accounted for. Similarly, 10,000 personnel of the Indian army, which utilise all the resources of the region forces the civic authorities to plan for a population of 50,000.
The city is metamorphosising fast. It gets more than 300,000 tourists in a year. These are both foreign and Indian tourists and the town is shaped according to their needs and comforts. The town has modern café, German bakery, motor cycle outlets, giant guzzlers and what not; all this is all over the city.
There are immense challenges that the city faces from traffic congestion and shift from agriculture to tourism. One can easily see the agricultural fields getting converted into guest house and hotels; a few of which offering central heating facility remain open throughout the year (as the night temperature dips to minus 30 degrees Celsius).
The challenges of drainage, sanitation, water; all of them confront the civic authorities for solutions which are sustainable and implementable. The youth are shifting from villages to the city where they work as tourist agents. They leave their parents behind who are taken care by sprouting palliative and geriatric care initiatives by a large number of CBOs (community based organisations).
The irreversible shift in toilets?
In this transformation there is another important shift taking place which seems to be irreversible. This is regarding a particular habit which is getting eroded and eventually may be lost in the future. It pertains to the paradigm shift from traditional ‘dry toilets’ to the modern flush toilets. Why is it so? Is it just because of the fact that there is a large number of tourists who are not comfortable with the old dry toilets or because the native communities have shifted to the ‘flush’ ones? The Jammu and Kashmir government utilising funds under Urban Infrastructure Development Scheme for Small and Medium Towns (UIDSSMT) through itsPublic Health Engineering (PHE) department has invested nearly `100 crore for laying sewerage pipes in the city and connecting it to a sewage treatment plant (STP) which may become operational in a year from now.
There is a famous saying, “The change in material production changes the social productive relations as well.” So is true for the shift that the material production brings in social behaviour. Dry toilets are drying up and the flush toilets are taking its space. Undoubtedly this mounts severe pressure on the water consumption of the city. But the change looks inevitable. Let us examine the three important reasons for that:

  • The dry toilets were excellent and were used by the community which also served as human manure for the agriculturalfields. This consumed little water and according to estimates even 40 litres per capita per day could suffice for an individual. Now with the shift from agriculture to tourism and reduction in agriculture in the city the dry toilets are hardly seen as ‘manure production’ for the fields. This has spiked the water usage to almost double thus increasing pressure on the authorities (PHE) to provide required quantity of water. Despite that the shift seems irreversible as the usage of wet toilets is getting de-linked from the production base of agriculture in the city.
  • The second major reason is that the Ladakhi people living in Leh town earn their livelihood mainly from tourism. Unlike in the past the major labour activity of agriculture is virtually vanishing. This has affected the entire activity of clearing the faecal material and dumping it in the fields. This is now considered something ‘bad’ by the younger generation of the region who prefer to open business outlets and work as tourist agents or guides. In such a scenario the native families are more than keen to get rid of the dry toilets as the present form of human labour is divorced from its operations.
  • The third major reason for discontinuing the dry toilets is linked to the sewage connection which every household will be forced to accept. The design of the sewage treatment plant is for 3 million litres per day. It means that a minimum of 30 lakh litres of water and sewage must reach the STP to ensure that it functions to its optimum capacity. The utility will force every household and the hotel industry to link their toilets to the main sewage line. It is only through this linkage that the STP will be able to function normally. Already there is widespread discussion in the local government and administrative circles about how the linkage of the sewage system must be ensured. For them this utility is more like a business model where though the capital has been invested by the government, the operation costs will be borne by the local residents. Hence, the entire discourse in the city is for linking the sewage connection.
It is a strange and unpleasant reality that in the mountains instead of surface water the city meets more than 50 per cent demand through ground water and that too is contaminated

Transformations can take the city and its people both towards better living as well as for surmounting challenges which may even be unforeseen. It looks like the unbridled pace at which the model of wet toilets is followed in the hill city of Leh could be disastrous. Already results of this shift are being witnessed. During the dry toilet usage period the stream of water flowing in the town was used for drinking purposes. Now with majority wet toilets in the city, the stream is contaminated with mixture of faecal matter from the septic tanks of individuals and hotels. Not just the surface water has become unconsumable but even the groundwater which is at a shallow level has got badly contaminated. There are over 3000 borewells both in the private and public domain. Almost 90 per cent of the borewells have tested negative for human consumption. It is a strange and unpleasant reality that in the mountains instead of surface water the city meets more than 50 per cent of its demand through groundwater and that too is contaminated.

The city has to revisit its sanitation plan which should focus on both the dry and wet toilets. It is quite agreeable that the design of the dry toilets requires change which can easily be done to adapt to the modern-day requirement. For example, the design of the commode can be changed to suit both tourists and the natives. The mixing of sand can be adjusted in the design of the house which can have a mechanical lever attached so that it is easily operated. This is quite possible and the city civic administration and the people must not rule out the possibility of the usage of dry toilets. The transformation in Leh which has to happen must be for the enhancement of liveability of its citizens and not become victims of the trajectory of urbanisation being witnessed in the country. Liveable Leh, will be where once again the stream water flowing in the city can be used for human consumption rather than completely relying on groundwater.

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