Eliminating manual scavenging – The Honey-sucker approach

November 10, 2011

The human Waste in question

The management of human waste in India has traditionally been inadequate to say the least and with an increasing population has become a further burden. We still have the largest population in the world of people without toilets and who have to resort to open defecation. In its particularly ghastly form it has given rise to the practice of manual scavenging, the dehumanizing method in which people have to empty raw sewage whilst immersed in it. Though there is a law which bans it, in the absence of an effective system of monitoring and replacing the dry toilets the practice regrettably continues. In a recent incidence in the town of Robertsonpet in Kolar District, 3 persons died when they went down to clean a septic tank and inhaled the poisonous gas present there.

Most cities and towns in India do not have underground sewage systems to dispose of waste. These urban areas resort to on-plot systems of sanitation generally with a pit latrine or a septic tank. These pits are large diameter and deep pits which may take years to fill up but eventually they do. When they do fill up they have to be emptied. The same goes for the septic tanks too. The sludge deposited in them need to be emptied from time to time.

There is no structured attempt by any institution to ensure that these septic tanks and pit latrines are emptied mechanically. The private sector has responded innovatively with the development of the ‘Honeysucker’. These vacuum trucks of capacity 3000 litres and with a water jetting facility now roam the streets in their distinctive yellow colour.

The 'Honeysucker' - Vacum truck for emptying septic tank and pit toilet sludge

A honeysucker stands in front of a multistoried building, a daily visit.

These trucks are indigenously and ingeniously made. A truck chassis is taken and the cylinder with two sections welded on to the body. Pumps are then place linked to the diesel motor. The pumps are of a very high suction capability and can lift waste from up-to 80 metres. At one call from a mobile phone they are at the doorstep providing a service which eliminates manual scavenging.

If the state is really serious about eliminating manual scavenging it will do all it can to encourage the ‘Honeysucker’ model of waste management. Every town municipality should have at least one such vacuum truck. One Honeysucker can provide for 4000 houses or for a population of 20,000 people. Towns can then choose the number of Honeysuckers required in their municipality.

Rich organic humus for the soil from the humanure

The building bye-laws should specify the design of the septic tank and pit toilets so as not to pollute the groundwater. This should be insisted upon for every completion certificate. The town municipality should also do an inventory of the number of septic tanks and pit toilets in its jurisdiction. Notice should be issued to every household to get one if they do not have it.

Honeysucker emptying into a composting pit. This pit will hold a 1000 tankers.

The private sector should be encouraged by providing clear guidelines for the waste disposal, composting and selling of compost. A composting site could be arranged which is appropriately designed to avoid smell, pollution of soil and water as well as compost the rich nutrient load . After adequate composting, this could be sold as fertilizers to farmers. There is a huge demand for such fertilizers which sell at Rs 2000 a tractor load.

Bananas grown using composted manure from a honeysucker

It is unlikely that India will get underground sewage systems for all its towns in the near future. While decentralized sewage systems have a role it is most likely that the on plot sanitation system will be the easiest option for most people. With a good design at the toilet and pit level as well as at the collection and composting level, a value chain of sanitation, public health and agriculture can be created. The moment is for us to seize and get rid of manual scavenging once and for all as well as provide sanitation to the millions who lack it.

Who can do what ?

Architects/Engineers/ House owners – Design your septic tank or pit toilet to be easily accessible for the honey-sucker.

If necessary a separate pit toilet may be designed for the toilets alone . The grey water can go to another pit separately.

In high water table areas, seal the bottom of the pit.

Municipalities : Ensure that a design template for septic tanks and pit toilets is provided.

Ensure that the septic tank or pit toilet is inspected before issuing completion certificate.

Ensure that pits and septic tanks are frequently emptied say once every 2 years.

Ensure that land is provided for safe disposal and composting of collected sludge.

Farmers /Fertiliser manufacturers : Ensure that compost pits are suitably lined and does not pollute soil or water.

Ensure that adequate time is given to allow the sludge to compost. Do not use raw sludge.

Use the compost only for specified plants which are not eaten raw.

Pollution Control Board : Draw up a regulation for the honeysuckers, to register and dispose off sludge in authorised compost sites only.

Assist the farmers and the fertiliser manufacturers in the correct composting of faecal sludge.

Regularly inspect the sludge composting yards for compliance.

Agriculture Department : Draw up guidelines for correct use of composted human sludge.

Inspect and assist farmers in correct use of compost including timing, quantity etc.

Draw up approved list of plants and trees where the compost can be used.

There are approximately 200 such Honeysuckers operating in Bangalore city alone servicing upto 100,000 houses. These honey-suckers also service the nearby small towns of Dodballapur, Chikballapur , Magadi, Vijaypura, Devanahalli.

Others are operating in the towns of Bellary and Hospet. The solutions to urban ecological sanitation is emerging from the informal private sector.

Caution :  Hookworm incidences have to be looked out for http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1196/annals.1425.000/full  They are endemic and debilitating.



  1. India should Go for Vacuum Toilets. And in such a case the Tankers help. Remaining water, which is grey water the existing Flood drain with constructing Lots of Bios-wale. Large buildings can recycle water with Membrane Bio-Reactors.

  2. very interesting…

  3. Most advanced methods of storm water managements are soakaways or by attenuation. Both these methods are extensively utilized to reduce flood risks by dramatically adding sustainability of building schemes. The infiltration system is insufficiently permeable that allow water to infiltrate away naturally.

  4. Zenrainman,

    In the photo showing the Honeysucker discharging collected effluent, is this in Bangalore? Is this a private facility? Does BWSSB have designated STP stations where the honeysucker can discharge? Am interested in knowing where one can output the effluent in Bangalore when cleaning one’ septic tank.

  5. Well both options are available.

  6. i agree with the statement that India should go for Vacuum Toilets. it’ll be healthier for everybody there for using this kind of sanitary equipment, although for sure it’s gonna be a bit costy…

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