Swachh Bharat Mission: Need focus on citywide sanitation, clean Ganga

Safe and equitable access to sanitation and ensuring behavioural change necessary for sustenance

By Rahul Mankotia, Shantanu Kumar Padhi, Nida Ahmed
Published: Monday 14 October 2019
Construction of 100 million toilets across the country under the Swacch Bharat Mission is only the first step. Photo: Getty Images

Citywide sanitation starts with equitable access to hygienic toilets. This means accessibility and affordability for the urban poor and marginalised sections of the society including the differently abled, elderly, women and children.

The construction of 100 million toilets across the country under the Swacch Bharat Mission is only the first step. To sustain the open-defecation free status of the country, it is not only necessary to keep the momentum of toilet construction going but also to ensure everyone uses the toilets.

Are the toilets user-friendly? Do women have privacy and feel safe while using it? Will children feel comfortable using it? Is it easy for the elderly or the differently abled to access these toilets? If there is a user fee, will people be able to afford it?

These are some of the questions that need to be asked while planning not only a community or public toilet but also those in households — Individual Household Latrines. And the best people to answer this question are representatives of communities. Representation and involvement of the community is necessary to ensure the toilets are planned for equitable access.

Behavior change

What about people’s mindset? Behavior change communication and community engagement are critical for adoption of toilets in communities where open defecation is a norm.

Behavior change communication starts with capacity building and sensitisation of the community and creation of role models or change agent within the community to help achieve behavior change on a scale leading to improved sanitation practices of the community.

Change agents can include elected representatives, known personalities in the community or even schoolchildren or anganwadi workers.

Safe management of excreta

Where does your excreta go after you flush? If you live in a metropolitan city or a tier-1 city, there is a possibility that your toilet is connected to a sewerage network.

It is a large intricate system of underground pipes and pumping system that is ultimately connected to a sewage treatment plant (STP). But this is a western concept which Indian cities have been trying to adopt for many decades now, but only 30 per cent of the urban population in the country has been connected to a sewerage network.

The challenge of digging up narrow lanes and covering the entire city through a sewerage network is challenging. Even locating and operating a centralised STP is a challenge in the Ganga basin due to frequent flooding in low lying areas. Instead of lobbing only for one solution, alternate solutions should be looked at.

Decentralised wastewater treatment is an approach where instead of one big conventional STP in the outskirts of a city, many smaller STPs are developed within the city at community or ward levels.

The main advantage of such an approach is that sewage is not conveyed or pumped for long distances and the possibility of local reuse of treated water increases manifold. Depending upon the availability of land and skilled manpower, mechanized- or nature-based technology can be selected.

In the absence of a sewer system, majority of households are connected to onsite sanitation systems like septic tanks. These tanks need to be properly lined and designed according to the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) code to ensure it safely contains the excreta.

The waste from the septic tank — faecal sludge — needs to be emptied by a vacuum tanker at least every 2-3 years or else it can pollute waterbodies and become a public health concern. The tendency of households is to delay emptying the septic tank until there is an emergency.

Some cities in Maharashtra have adopted scheduled emptying service provided by the urban local body to prevent septic tanks from malfunctioning and become a health hazard.

The faecal sludge can either be treated at a dedicated faecal sludge treatment plant or in case of a city partially covered with a sewerage network, it can be co-treated with sewage in an STP. Before treating the additional organic load, the capacity of an STP needs to be assessed.

The management of grey water (water from bathroom and kitchen) in non-sewered areas can be addressed by innovative solutions like simplified sewers connected to decentralised wastewater treatment systems which are easier to construct and maintain.

Business models for sustainability and re-use

Sewerage projects are implemented on a big scale and are lucrative for bigger private sector players. But what about faecal sludge and septage management, where scope of work includes operating a vacuum tanker to safely empty and transport faecal sludge and operating a faecal sludge treatment plant (FSTP) which is comparatively less lucrative due to the smaller scale of the project?

Many states are opting for convergence with National Urban Livelihood Mission which includes involving self-help groups or community-based organisations in taking up operations of the treatment plant through skill development and capacity building.

To ensure sustainable revenue from sale of byproducts of FSTP, forward linkages can be tied with the horticulture department to be used in gardens and public parks.

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