Rural Water and Sanitation

Union Budget 2022-23: Why rural Swachh Bharat Mission needs to be back in focus

A lot needs to be done to ensure faecal sludge is treated before reaching water source

By Sushmita Sengupta
Published: Tuesday 25 January 2022

Are we losing focus of the Prime Minister’s dream project Swachh Bharat Mission (grameen)? Whatever the answer is, the fact is we cannot afford to do so. 

In October 2019, rural India was declared open-defecation free. By this, the department of drinking water and sanitation under theUnion Ministry of Jal Shakti meant that every household has access to a toilet. 

More than 160 million household toilets have been built in the rural areas, according to the latest dashboard of the mission. This means on an average, around 840 million people are using these toilets (considering there are five persons per household). 

Toilets created should be technologically equipped to treat the faecal matter in-situ. The National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey (NARSS) 2018-19 report, a third party audit report of the state of sanitation in rural India said that around 34 per cent of the toilets have septic tanks with soakaway pits and 30 per cent are twin leach pit toilets. 

The survey defined other toilets that have single-leach pits, closed drains with sewer systems and closed pits also as ‘safe toilets’. At the national level, around 99.9 per cent households practise safe disposal of excreta, NARSS 2019-20 stated.

The question is whether single-leach pits or closed pits can result in safe disposal of excreta. The latest manual from the department also talks of retrofitting single pits into dual-leach pits with honeycomb structure to treat the faecal sludge onsite. 

Researchers from the Centre for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based non-profit, found both good and not-so-good stories in select states of India. 

Few states processed sludge safely and emptied only treated sludge in drains and waterbodies or even reused it. At the same time, researchers found a huge amount of untreated sludge dumped in waterbodies and open spaces in the villages without proper treatment. 

A few states are struggling with wrongly designed toilets. 

In the last Union Budget of 2021-22, no separate fund was allocated for rural management of faecal sludge. But later on in August 2021, additional funds of Rs 1.4 lakh crore were allocated for rural local bodies as “tied funds”. Of this, Rs 71.042 crore was earmarked for sanitation work in villages,  including faecal sludge management till 2025-26. 

In case of the sanitation projects, these tied grants will only be used in convergence with the Swachh Bharat Mission, according to the Union Ministry of Finance.

Apart from creating infrastructure for treatment of faecal sludge, there are parallel needs to build capacities of district officials on the following: 

  1. Retrofitting faulty toilets
  2. Safe-disposal of faecal sludge technologies to protect drinking water sources
  3. Test sludge from honeycomb toilets to analyse for quality and safety and thus help in protecting the drinking water
  4. Awareness on safe handling of faecal sludge and safe reusal of treated sludge

Safe management of faecal sludge is important to clean our surface water and groundwater for a safe and sustainable drinking water source. If we consider that 128 grams of faecal matter is produced per day per person (according to a 2015 paper in PubMed website), then around 0.12 million tonnes of faecal matter is produced per day at the household-level, considering the number of household toilets constructed by the department. 

We need to ensure that this faecal matter is either treated in-situ with proper toilets or the sludge is treated offsite before it is emptied on open spaces and waterbodies. 

A lot needs to be done to ensure faecal sludge is treated before reaching water sources. The upcoming Union Budget should definitely focus on Swachh Bharat Mission (Grameen), so that only treated sludge from rural areas reaches drains, ponds and rivers. Urban and rural should be seen in convergence to reach the United Nations-mandated Sustainable Development Goal for safe sanitation by 2030. 

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