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Science and technology alone may be incapable of bringing development in a country like ours where software engineers are top-notch and environmental engineers treated as also-rans

Tech it further
The western world has taken major strides in the area of wastewater treatment. Not only does one find many cities where all the sewage generated by water users is collected and treated to high standards before disposal, but there are also many with treatment plants that are fast becoming successful test-beds of innovation from the point of view of energy recovery, greenhouse gas reduction and sustainable development.

Anaerobic digesters produce biogas, all of which is collected and looked upon as a potential source of energy — heat, electricity or transport fuel (which would provide mechanical energy for traction eventually). By recovering heat from biogas, treatment plants avoid or reduce the need for externally-sourced fossil fuels. By recovering electricity from the biogas, they reduce their dependence on the grid (which may be conducting fossil-fuel-sourced electricity for that matter). By upgrading the biogas to biomethane (simply increasing the composition of methane in it to as much as 100 per cent), they enable the public transportation sector to reduce their usage of fossil diesel.

Some plants would also be availing of a market for the heat and electricity in their vicinity, thus earning useful money that could be pumped back into the development and sustenance of technologies and processes. The residual sludge finds use as fertiliser or for landscaping and forestry — carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus returned back to the soil to serve in nurturing flora and fauna indirectly. Some treatment plants have also embarked upon utilising the kinetic energy in the wastewater that they eventually discharge in micro-turbines, to generate electricity. Recovery of heat in the effluent wastewater from the treatment plants is an accepted possibility these days.

Having to collect and treat sewage is not considered as a burden in these parts of the world. Rather, the fulfilment of a duty uncovers bounteous gifts for those who may wish to seek and find, look and learn; and learn and apply. Citizens ride buses that are powered by the same filth that they discharge into the sewers — only in this case, the filth is no longer something one shies away from. It is simply ‘valuable resources’ shrouded from the sight and ken of humans who would not bother to look beyond the obvious.

The ‘how’ and the ‘why’ are of course within the realm of science and technology. These are known to many. Scientists, engineers, academicians and researchers travelling around the globe attending conferences and scouring the internet for journal publications, would be updated on the state-of-the-art. The ‘ignorance hypothesis’ — explained by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, in their book Why Nations Fail — thereby, does not explain the reason why a country like India should lag behind in this regard. In Indian cities, even being able to collect and treat 100 per cent of the sewage to stringent limits would be a great achievement. Yet, it does not seem to be as great an achievement as going to the moon or developing nuclear weapons!

The lack of ‘glamour’ in something as mundane as wastewater and sanitary engineering, is what stands in the way. We also know that municipal employees — most of whom are in charge of the water supply and sanitation systems in Indian cities — are normally looked down upon. The motivation and zeal that is evidenced in the western world, in the way municipal employees approach their tasks, is not to be seen in India. This, despite the fact, that they all have permanent jobs with a guarantee of a good pension post-retirement.

Evidently, there are numerous factors other than science and technology which aid or hinder the adoption of best-practices — the socio-political, the economic and the cultural. We are a country in which many educated middle-aged urbanites do not even know that wastewater is usually treated before disposal. Even if they do, it is regarded as ‘someone else’s business to handle my wastes’.

Science and technology (or the knowledge of science and technology) alone, may be utterly incapable of bringing about the much-needed development in a country like ours where software engineers are top-notch, and environmental engineers are treated as also-rans! zz

(The writer is a post doctoral researcher at the department of hydraulic and environmental

engineering of the Norwegian University of

Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway)


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