Getting urban sanitation on track

Ironically, India, despite being the most economically 'developed' country in South Asia, has the distinction of having the highest number of open defecators in the world. Only about 40 per cent Indians have access to improved sanitation facilities, way behind most countries in South Asia, such as Maldives, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal, and Bangladesh. Open defecation has adverse health effects, and lack of improved sanitation services has huge economic costs. The World Bank (2006) has estimated such cost of poor sanitation at 6.4 per cent of India’s GDP.

Prime Minister Modi's clarion call to declare the country 'open defecation free' by October 2, 2019 is a right step in this direction.

In 1981, India had launched its first policy-level intervention through an integrated, low-cost sanitation scheme to convert dry latrines to flush latrines, continued through many other schemes such as Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (2005), National Urban Sanitation Policy (2008), Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM, 2014), Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT 2015), Faecal Sludge and Septage Management Policy (2016-17).

Some results

These measures helped urban local bodies to move towards becoming autonomous, accountable, and customer-oriented service providers. The efforts have shown that traditional engineering-driven approach is not effective, and a participatory approach is needed.

Also, there is a need to adopt wide-ranging measures including demand-responsive approaches, performance-based transfer of funds, allocation of public funds to stimulate demand for sanitation services, and introducing reforms to support initiatives at the level of States and local bodies.

The regional policies, in association with central policies, as adopted by various States have, however, resulted in uneven progress in sanitation efforts: the western region and southern region fared better overall, and the eastern region has fared better than the northern region (except Chandigarh). The regional toppers are Gujarat, followed by Madhya Pradesh in the west; Andhra Pradesh in the south; and Mizoram in the north-east.

The State polices have shown that capacity-building and incentive-based performance are also the need of the hour. Urban sanitation needs a holistic effort, requiring a multi-dimensional approach, as economic growth, urbanisation, public health, and the environment, including climate change, all affect urban sanitation.

Swachh Bharat, and more

Of all the central-level policies, SBM is focused and comprehensive; it mandates, inter alia, that no household should engage in open defecation, that no unsanitary toilets should be constructed, and that existing pit latrines should be converted into sanitary latrines.

Further, manual scavenging should be eradicated, and modern and scientific methods should be adopted for solid waste management. Till 2017, about three million individual household toilets, out of a targeted 10.4 million, have been constructed in urban areas, leaving a big gap to be met by October 2019.

The existing scheme provides funds for construction of toilets, but not for the related infrastructure to collect, transport and treat sewage. AMRUT, however, provides a policy framework to address this issue. A decentralised and networked sewerage system is a common link between targets of the two schemes, and SBM, AMRUT and Smart Cities schemes have set targets for adequate sanitation, household toilets with water supply, and improvement of solid waste management.

Still the missing links in the entire sanitation chain are provision of adequate funds, empowered local bodies, appropriate technology for sewage treatment plants, an integrated approach to sanitation, data and knowledge management, and connections to sewer networks and their operation and maintenance.

There is a need to leverage corporate engagement in the sanitation arena, encourage decentralised supply of drinking water through small water enterprises, and complement the subsidies for SBM through innovative model of financing such as microfinancing, arranging corporate social responsibility funds from corporates, bank loan for sanitation to households, and financing self-help groups, etc.

Being an open defecation-free country is not enough to make India clean and green. We need to do more.

The way ahead

First, establish a legal framework with principles to guide implementation of safe and sustainable urban sanitation; incentivise scientific management of faecal waste storage; improve synergy between civil societies and government; and devolve power to local bodies for strict enforcement of the "polluter pays" principle for scientific management of solid waste, faecal sludge and septage.

Second, educate and motivate the householders towards engagement in planning and implementation of sanitation services and in the operation and maintenance of individual household toilets, community toilets, and public toilets; improve the capacity of local body officials; enhance institutional, financial and human resource capacities of local bodies; enhance capacities of civil societies and other partners to engage them effectively in the entire water, sanitation and hygiene sector.

Third, streamline sewerage projects; promote sustainable sewage treatment systems; engage the corporate sector and provide an enabling environment for implementing innovative replicable models; and incentivise small water enterprises to ensure safe access of drinking water for a larger proportion of population.

Fourth, encourage local bodies to implement self-financed projects such as, for example, Surat Municipal Corporation's energy generation and sale of recycled water from a tertiary treatment plant; and ensure policy support for sanitation financing.

Finally, there is a need to improve data collection and management system and review of the monitoring mechanism to emphasise quality rather than quantity in reporting progress.