Rural Water and Sanitation

What a waste: Reviving India’s sanitation systems

Indians often confuse toilets with sanitation; but they are mere repositories to receive waste    

By Mahesh Nathan
Published: Monday 10 January 2022
Nearly 1.04 million under-five child deaths in the country are attributed to poor sanitation and water-related issues. Photo: iStock

Toilets are crucial for the healthy development of people and the holistic development of children. Nearly 1.04 million under-five child deaths in the country are attributed to poor sanitation and water-related issues. 

The last decade has seen a massive push for improved sanitation in India and the progress has been significant with almost millions of the population now having access to toilets.

However, to achieve an Open Defecation Free (ODF) India, much focus was earlier being given to ‘before the flush’ in the value chain through big campaigns such as the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission (SBM), than the internal mechanisms of sanitation systems.  The stages from emptying to safe reuse or disposal now deserve attention, resources and awareness.

Sanitation systems in our country have always been designed for years with one unfortunate assumption: That human labour would always be available to service. This is a fundamental issue and brings up challenges on many facades.

At various steps across our sanitation value chain — from toilets to treatment plants — workers must interact with faecal matter in extremely unsafe ways. They are always inadequately provided with safety equipment and are socially cold-shouldered.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated problems for these hygiene workers. There are over five million sanitation workers in India collecting waste from our households, cleaning our streets and public toilets, sewer lines and septic tanks.

The transformation that we witness on the ground today, be it cleaner roads, regular waste collection or well-maintained public toilets, is largely a result of the efforts of these workers engaged solely in the business of cleanliness.

These public health and safety workers, who continue to work through the COVID-19 pandemic, are unprotected, unappreciated and ignored.

The school sanitation interventions have now become prominent as means to create an enabling environment for safe return to schools for the 247 million children across the country. Water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) have emerged as an issue of particular concern when considering school reopening.

Where toilets exist, they need proper maintenance with appropriate waste management practices. The role of the sanitary worker becomes prominent to create an enabling environment for safe return to schools for pupils and particularly girls.

It is estimated that poor sanitation costs India 5.2 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) annually. While much is being done to create access to toilets, the fact remains more than 57 per cent of human waste globally is not contained, transported, or treated in a way that safely contains harmful pathogens.

A staggering 78 per cent of sewage generated in India remains untreated and is unsafely disposed of in rivers, groundwater or lakes, contaminating 90 per cent of all surface water.

This is because we often confuse toilets with sanitation. But toilets are mere repositories to receive waste; when we flush, the waste flows into a piped drain, which could be either connected or not, to a sewage treatment plant (STP).

Along with the poor solid / liquid waste management, we also struggle to contain plastic waste management. It is to be noted that, plastic waste has become a menace by clogging drains resulting in severe floods, especially in urban spaces.

Plastic also contaminates water bodies when dumped into canals and oceans.

The SBM claims that a majority of toilets in rural India are “twin pit leach pit” type, built by arranging bricks in a honeycomb pattern. They are self-contained treatment plants and do not require any additional grey water or faecal sludge management.

However, by the government’s own admission in its report, From ODF to ODF Plus Rural Sanitation Strategy 2019-2029, the country still has thousands of toilets with single-pits or septic tanks that require desludging from time to time.

These were built either during SBM-Gramin or under previous sanitation programmes. “To ensure sustainability in future, they may be retrofitted as appropriate,” says the report.

Under this, all single-pit toilets have to be upgraded to twin-pit and soak pits have to be constructed for septic tanks. Given the extent of the infrastructure and resources gap, a mix of public, humanitarian and private capital, technology-led strategies and a bold entrepreneurial approach nurtured by a positive regulatory environment are necessary to contain and solve this crisis.

It is high time that we find ways to manage our faecal sludge and plastic waste to secure clean water sources and meet the needs of our rapidly increasing population of 1.37 billion. These solutions will translate into healthy and productive participation in our overwhelming economy.

Given the range of solutions available in India, simple interventions can ominously improve safety standards, enhance efficiency and restore dignity. Interventions such as the use of mini-sewer jetting machines, manual robots to access tapered lanes and clear clogged sewer pipes will enable upskilling and rehabilitating of manual scavengers and informal workers to undertake new jobs.

The COVID-19 crisis presents an opportunity to reimagine the idea of waste management and inclusive development exclusively for sanitation workers. India’s sanitation economy is estimated to grow to $63 billion by the end of this year.

Prioritising investment and action to solve our faecal sludge along with plastic waste management is the need of the hour.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don't necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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