As we are on the cusp of completing the Swachh Bharat Mission in October 2019, we now need to look beyond building toilets and achieving Open Defecation Free (ODF) cities.
Building toilets is the first step – India’s sanitation journey has just begun
With the advent of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), 54.64 lakh individual toilets and 4.64 lakh community and public toilets have been built in urban areas. With all the emphasis being on behaviour change communication, we know that building and using toilets has had a positive impact on one’s health, hygiene and environment. By using a toilet, we believe the job is done and the rest will be taken care of. We tend to flush and forget!
However, addressing the sanitation problem is not just about eliminating open defecation by providing toilets, but also of ensuring the safe disposal of faecal waste without it being exfiltrated into the environment. As urban residents, it is hard to consider that human excreta also needs safe management and treatment. Every toilet should be connected to a containment system that safely confines human faeces either through an underground piped sewer network or septic tanks. The sewer network is then connected to a sewage treatment plant (STP) while human waste in septic tanks needs to be periodically emptied, safely transported and treated before it is safely disposed or reused.
It is commonly believed that an underground sewer network with a centralized wastewater treatment plant is the solution. It’s a harsh reality that only 32.7 percent (census 2011) of India’s urban households have toilets that are connected to an underground sewer system. In many cases, piped sewerage systems do not treat sewage, but merely transport it away to be finally disposed in water bodies. According to a report by the Central Pollution Control Board (2015), out of the 816 STPs listed across India, 522 were operational, 79 of the STPs were non-operational, 145 STPs were reported under construction and 70 STPs were proposed for construction.Why we cannot afford to wait
Human waste, when not safely treated, ends up polluting rivers, lakes and neighborhoods, which results in the high rate of diseases like diarrhoea, hepatitis and other gastrointestinal diseases. With nearly 75 percent of the sewage and fecal waste remaining untreated, it is one of the biggest sources of water contamination in India.
A complementary solution that is affordable, faster to implement, and scalable in today’s scenario is Faecal Sludge and Septage Management (FSSM). FSSM involves the safe collection, transportation and treatment of faecal sludge and septage from septic tanks. The per capita cost of implementing FSSM is almost 20 times lesser than that of a centralised network.India’s efforts in FSSM
Both the central and state governments are progressively looking at non-networked sanitation solutions to provide end-to-end safe sanitation to all. The national FSSM policy 2017 was the first such step and created a policy framework for implementation. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs made budgetary provisions under the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) program for providing basic services including sewerage and septage projects. More than Rs 32,456 crore, or 42 percent of total funds has been awarded for sewerage and septage management projects. We also need to plan for the financing of 4,000 non-AMRUT urban towns and 3,500 small and medium towns falling outside the purview of AMRUT.
The states like Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra have emerged as frontrunners in implementing FSSM in their respective states and are progressing ahead in implementing non-networked sanitation and experimenting with new models, innovative technologies, and the sustainable demand of services and building capacities to ensure the sustainability of the interventions. Their efforts have been compounded by the support provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and several other partners resulting in more than 400 faecal sludge and septage treatment facilities are underway currently.Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) 2.0
As we are on the cusp of completing the SBM in October 2019, we now need to look beyond building toilets and achieving Open Defecation Free (ODF) cities. With SBM goal of making India ODF by 2019 fast approaching and nearly 70 percent of cities becoming ODF, the key is to move to ODF+ and ODF++ and ensure its effective implementation. While ODF+ ensures ODF sustainability and proper maintenance of toilet facilities, the ODF++ status ensures the safe collection, conveyance, treatment and disposal of all faecal sludge and sewage to achieve sustainable sanitation for all.
It is critical for the Central and state governments and cities to earmark funds for implementing non-network solutions across the sanitation value chain. Thus, an environment is desired wherein people not just use sanitary toilets, but also have access to affordable and efficient FSSM services and are protected from the ill-effects of untreated faecal waste. Hence, in the SBM 2.0, the setting up of a holistic ecosystem should be targeted to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on sanitation.
Thus, a multi-stakeholder inclusive approach is needed to achieve sustainable sanitation for all at all times. The government, regulators, funding agencies, and private sector need to work together to address the current gaps around implementation and create replicable approaches and models. The current capacities of government functionaries and private service providers are limited and need handholding support. It is imperative to make intensive and long-term investments in demand generation and citizen engagement and ensure urban poor communities, women and vulnerable sections are specifically considered as the burden of poor sanitation, compounded by the lack of FSSM services affect them disproportionately.
We need to aim for an open defecation and open discharge free India.The author is a Director with Ernst & Young’s Government and Public Sector Practice.