Geetanjali Krishna: The obstacles to pee-cycling

The other day, my veggie vendor Babulal asked me if I knew Union minister Nitin Gadkari. I said I didn't and asked why. He replied, "I follow the news very religiously and recently read his statement that urine can be used as a fertiliser for growing vegetables." As his family had a small patch of agricultural land near Agra on which they've always grown vegetables, Babulal found this assertion hard to believe. "All my life, I've lived in a house with no toilet, and growing up, my parents had strict rules about where we could, and where we couldn't urinate," he said. They had always told his siblings and him that they must never urinate close to the vegetable patch. "And now, a highly educated person is telling us that he stores his own urine in tanks to water his vegetables with! I don't know what to believe," he exclaimed.

The conversation prompted me to do some research on the use of urine in farming. To my surprise, Gadkari's assertions were indeed backed by scientific study and experience. Urine contains nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium - together called NPK - key ingredients of agricultural fertiliser. Fresh urine is, however, acidic. This can be counteracted by the addition of gypsum. Bengaluru-based University of Agricultural Sciences conducted a study on the effects of human urine and claims that urine, along with gypsum, led to larger maize cobs, more bananas and faster-growing radish - as well as enriched soil.

In fact, I read that human urine has been successfully used as a liquid fertiliser in several countries, including China, Japan and Nepal. In India, it has been used to cultivate potatoes and chillies in Manipur. Agricultural scientists across the world have noted that, especially in poor countries dependent on agriculture, the use of urine as fertiliser could potentially bring about a significant improvement in food security. Moreover, its usage would divert a potentially harmful substance from waterways to farms, reducing the load on our already overburdened sewage systems. The only worry about using human urine in agriculture is the associated health risks such as spread of infections and disease. For this, the World Health Organization set guidelines in 2006 for the safe use of excreta in agriculture, suggesting a series of measures to reduce the health risk to an acceptable minimum as urine goes from, as the agency rather picturesquely calls, the 'toilet to table'.

Could human urine be, then, I mused, the organic fertiliser of the year, decade even? Could it transform the lives of Indian farmers by reducing their expenditure on expensive fertiliser? A few days later, when I met Babulal again, I repeated all that I'd read online about the benefits of human urine. At first, he was startled, then amused. Then he nixed the idea that pee-cycling would ever take off in India in a significant way. "All this science is very good, but what about our beliefs? Even if urine is a fantastic fertiliser, I'd never want to eat vegetables grown with it!" he said. Then he thought for a moment and added, "On the one hand, we are all being told that open defecation and urination is the bane of civilised society, in fact the prime minister's Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is toilet training people like us in such a huge way. Are we to now believe that all our lives when we urinated in the open, we weren't polluting the earth but fertilising it?" I smiled, for that was all I could do. Babulal moodily weighed a kilo of cucumbers and said, "I'll never understand science."

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