Sanitation will remain a mirage even after India stops defecating in the open

Although we will meet the target of an open defecation free India much before deadline, it is still the easiest milestone that we have crossed. Here, Down To Earth takes a hard look at the challenges that need to be addressed

By Sushmita Sengupta, Rashmi Verma
Published: Monday 01 October 2018
Photo: iStock

With the advantage of hindsight, one could argue: this is a civilisational leap forward. In about 25 weeks, India would shed one of its stickiest stigmas. By February 2019, the country would be open defecation free (ODF). It means the infamous distinction of having the world’s largest number of people going out for defecation would be history. The switchover—generations old behaviour of some 600 million people—is no mean feat.

It was in 1986 that the Indian government launched the Central Rural Sanitation Programme—the first nationwide sanitation programme. The programme had no target year and in vague terms spoke about improving the quality of life. Several other sanitation programmes were launched in the next 28 years, like the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan in rural India and Basic Services for Urban Poor in urban India. But India’s hope to be ODF remained as bruised as its millions of toilets that were built but never used.

A couple of months before Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the ambitious Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) in October 2014, the state of sanitation was still abysmal. At the time when Modi delivered his maiden Independence Day speech in 2014 less than 50 per cent of households in the country had access to sanitation facilities and only 30 per cent of the wastewater and sewage generated in urban India was treated before being let into rivers and streams. Every year, an estimated 0.4 million children died of water-borne diseases such as cholera, dysentery and suffered from stunted growth. So, Modi’s promise of making the country ODF by October 2, 2019—the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi—through another programme seemed just another expression of political will that would ultimately meet the fate of earlier programmes.

The newly designed SBM has turned out to be an overwhelming success, at least on the basics of making toilets available at household level. Its progress is breathtaking. In the last four years, 457,000 villages—close to 76 per cent of India’s villages—have been declared ODF. Just before the programme started, only 47,000 villages had this privilege. Around 83.8 million toilets have been built so far under the scheme.

The progress in household toilet coverage has been so swift that India would beat Modi’s deadline by half-a-year. In a meeting in August 2018, Parameswaran Iyer, the secretary of the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDWS), proudly declared, “We have almost reached the target of making India open defecation free. The country’s states are fast becoming open defecation free and the target will be reached much before the deadline set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” said Iyer, the go-to man of Modi’s flagship programme.

The data on the MDWS website (as on September 5, 2018) shows that the household toilet coverage in the country had reached almost 92 per cent. Around 20 of the 35 states and union territories had reached 100 per cent household coverage of toilets while two were at 99 per cent. Some 13 million households remained to be covered. If the rate at which toilets were constructed in 2017-18 (30 million toilets were built this year) is still maintained, India would become ODF by February 2019, at least in terms of building a toilet for each household.

There has been also another encouraging development. Four states— Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh known as laggard states—accounted for 60 per cent of India’s open defecating population last year. Their progress in toilet coverage unilaterally decides the country’s journey to be ODF. Out of them, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh have shown an impressive upward trajectory in the last one year. While Jharkhand shows household coverage of 87 per cent, Uttar Pradesh has shown tremendous improvement with household coverage of 94 per cent. Iyer says that many districts in Uttar Pradesh have 90 per cent household coverage but the usage is much lower.

Bihar and Odisha are a cause of concern as they still show household coverage around 65 per cent. Iyer says that the districts in these states that are lagging behind are the lowest in the socio-economic parameters.

In water scarce districts toilets are used only during monsoon and post monsoon period when there is availability of water. For example, Jhansi in UP. Here the usage of toilets goes down drastically during the lean period. The ministry has named these districts “aspiration districts”. The main problem of not having adequate toilet usage in these districts as per MDWS is water scarcity. MDWS is working with NITI Aayog to increase usage by ensuring sustainable water supply.

How the states manage to solve the problem of water supply to households that have toilets would be the most crucial factor in ending open defecation. Attaining ODF status is the goal but right now only the first and arguably the easiest milestone of providing complete toilet coverage to all households is being considered the yardstick for success.

The tumultuous history of India’s sanitation programmes also flags a note of caution on where this feat could go wrong. India built 61 million toilets after the first programme in 1986 (but before SBM) spending close to Rs 1, 00,000 crore. But the march to ODF halted just after building the toilet. First, because the usage was not consistent and there was slippage in ODF status, and add to it the rampant fudging of data to chase target. Second, millions of toilets built became dysfunctional adding to the problem. Third, we couldn’t avail water supply and ensure proper solid and liquid waste management to ensure safety. It is no wonder that India missed its earlier deadline of 2017 to make the country ODF.

Source: MDWS and personal communications

Let’s begin with the first hurdle. How a village, and for that matter a state, is declared ODF (See ‘Contentious...’,)? It has been a contentious issue since India rolled out its focused sanitation programme in 1986. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) raised the same question over SBM once again. In a report tabled in Gujarat’s legislative assembly on September 19, CAG said that the state’s claim of being ODF was wrong; in fact data was fudged to achieve this. Gujarat is one of 20 states that have declared themselves ODF under SBM. In its audit that covered eight districts, 30 per cent of the households had no toilets at all; forget about building and not using. “The state government declared all districts of Gujarat ODF by October 2, 2017. However, information provided by 120 test-checked gram panchayats for the period of 2014-17 revealed that 29 per cent households still did not have access to toilets (individual or public),” the CAG report said. The audit report hinted at fudging of data. More to it, in 41 of the total 120 test-checked villages, the toilets constructed under SBM could not be used as there was no water connection, CAG found.

In November 2017, sensing widespread fudging of data to chase target, the SBM (Gramin) secretariat issued an advisory to states and union territories regarding ODF certifications. The advisory came after reports of false declaration of ODF emerged from some places, like 155 villages in Guna district of Madhya Pradesh. Following complaints, officials deployed by the district’s additional magistrate, found over 2,000 instances of open defecation and many households without toilets. Similar incidents came to light from other places as well.

The declaration of ODF status is a slippery issue as the rush to achieve targets has led to false claims in the past. From 2001 to 2011 the percentage of households with toilets in UP increased only from 19.2 to 21.8. However, UP is now reporting that 94 per cent households have toilets in September 2018. This means the number has quadrupled in the last seven years. “One cannot escape from suspecting that UP may have resorted to inflated reporting as in the past,” says Naresh Chandra Saxena, former secretary with the Union ministry of rural development. Sanitation being a state subject, SBM has given states autonomy to conduct state supported surveys to check ODF status in villages and report back to the Centre.

To understand how these villages declared themselves ODF, Down To Earth visited the Kannauj district near the river Ganga and the assembly seat of Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav that has already achieved 100 per cent toilet coverage, with 80 per cent of it during SBM. The Centre checks a small sample of ODF villages/districts for final evaluation. The MDWS advisory states that ODF declaration on behalf of the villages must come only after local committees have ensured that a village has individual household toilets in each household and no open defecation is taking place. A broad guideline is given by MDWS for the states which includes seeing that no visible faeces is found in the village premises and all toilets in the village are using safe technology for the disposal of faeces. Verification of open defecation free status is done twice; once in three months post self-declaration and then six months later. So the whole verification process is completed in nine months. The state can use its own team or get external experts.

Source: MDWS and personal comunications

It is seen that the states mostly prefer their own teams comprising community and block officials. “In this case cross verification is done at village, block and district level,” says S K Singh, chief development officer, Kannauj. “From district level monitoring and supervision, ODF verification is usually a prolonged process that took three to nine months. We made teams comprising representatives from different government departments. After attaining ODF goals, the gram panchayat filed for verification. As a response, the block official team went for monitoring and submitted their report to the district and lastly district officials made their visit to confirm ODF status,” adds Singh. But Singh clarifies that it may not take as long as nine months as there is no double verification as per the ministry guidelines. “The states have the liberty to modify the guidelines,” says Anil Kumar, district consultant, SBM (Gramin).

In another visit to Maharashtra’s Nagpur district that has also declared itself to be ODF, the verification process for the certificate seemed to have many glaring faults. “The verification can be done as quickly as in three days,” explains Madhuri Godhmore, the sarpanch of Bharmani gram panchayat in Nagpur. Bharmani had received Nirmal Gram Puraskar in 2009. Hence under SBM only 20 per cent coverage of households by toilets had to be done in 2014. Here the district officials came and verified the village in just three days. No slippage of the previous programmes was measured although there were a few defunct toilets in the village, says Madhuri.

The MDWS guidelines recommend the involvement of the state officials/departments concerned for nine months during verification. During this period they focus on different activities in the village, like availability of water, cleanliness of water sources, water bodies, decentralised solid-liquid waste management, maintenance of drains, maintenance of school and anganwadi toilets, hand washing, awareness and training on pit emptying and faecal sludge management.

But in Kannauj district the entire official engagement was limited to toilet construction and other activities have not been measured. Availability of the personnel required for the entire verification process is an issue that has been confounding the states that could derail the ODF status like in the past. There are 702 villages in Kannauj district and 701 have self-declared to be ODF. The verification though has been completed only for 577 villages.

Going by the data collected in the field, 3,513 people are required for verification to be completed at the village, block and district level. The people deployed have to be well-trained in the safe disposal of faecal matter. But given multiple responsibilities of these officials, it emerges clearly that the verification process has been grossly compromised. The CAG report on Gujarat is just an indicator. Kailash Yadav, farmer, Ganga village Rajupur, Kannauj district

Slipping back to non-ODF status is a ghost of the past that would continue to haunt SBM, with a greater scale and spread. The 51st report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Rural Development, presented in Parliament in July, also pointed out filling of wrong information and slippage from ODF status. In fact the committee recommended resurvey of areas already declared as ODF. A study by TARU Leading Edge, a Delhi-based development advisory and think tank analysed the state of sanitation in villages which received Nirmal Gram Puraskar in the six states under the Total Sanitation Campaign, SBM’s predecessor. The study suggested that only 109 gram panchayats of the 162 surveyed were having toilet usage of more than 60 per cent showing that the rest slipped back to open defecation.

Government has been mounting regular surveys to track this. SBM (Gramin) conducted at least two national-level independent surveys—one by the Quality Council of India (QCI) and the other, the National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey (NARSS) 2017–18—that provide an update on the sanitation status of rural India. The QCI assessed 4,626 villages from May to June 2017, spread out across all states of India. In addition, 200 Namami Gange villages were assessed to check the actual coverage of rural sanitation. Results of this Swachh Survekshan Gramin 2017, which were announced just a week before the third anniversary of the ambitious SBM, show 62.45 per cent toilet coverage in India. It also reports that 91 per cent of the rural population having access to a toilet uses it. Under the Swachh Survekshan Gramin 2017, QCI surveyed 0.14 million rural households from 4,626 villages, a miniscule 0.72 per cent of the total villages in India. The Swachh Survekshan Gramin ignores toilet technology, solid and liquid waste management, adaptability and acceptance by villages in its methodology.

Ajit Chaturvedi, professor with Department of Statistics, University of Delhi, discounts the findings saying the sample size is below the mandatory 10 per cent. Jagdish Saran, Professor from the same department, raises doubts over sampling methods they have used. “Did they select samples from all strata of population? Did they select equal number of samples from all the villages?” he asks. Saran says that at times when the cost of survey is very high, then sample size is deliberately reduced. But in this case the survey was done on the basis of local interactions and field observations.

The NARSS, 2017–18 (conducted between mid-November 2017 and mid-March 2018) under the World Bank project support to SBM (Gramin) surveyed 92,040 households in 6,136 randomly selected villages across all states and union territories of India.

NARSS looked at the usage patterns of individuals in the household. The entire survey process, including survey instruments and protocols (which are available in public domain), were supervised by an expert working group (EWG) under the chairmanship of Amitabh Kundu and co-chairmanship of Naresh Chandra Saxena, both advisors to MDWS. EWG having representatives from multilateral agencies like the World Bank and other organisations working on sanitation reconfirms the ODF status of 1,204 (95.6 per cent) out of all 1,259 ODF villages surveyed. The remaining 55 ODF villages were not reconfirmed because of less than 100 per cent access to toilets and their non-usage. Just like the QCI, this time also the sample size was small. According to Yugal Kishore Joshi, the director of SBM, “The QCI and the NARSS studies bear testament to the fact that the SBM (Gramin) MIS is robust and present an accurate picture of the sanitation status in rural India. It captures the household data of well over 160 million households. Rural sanitation progress ?gures get updated on the MIS in real time at the village, block, district, state and national levels.”

Apart from these audits, SBM has been analysed by different organisations and individual experts. One such paper, co-authored by Diane Coffey and Dean Spears from the non-profit research organisation Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE), was published in March 2018 in the Economic & Political Weekly. The authors investigated the patterns of rural open defecation using the newly released National Family Health Survey–4 (NFHS–4), a large-scale nationally representative survey collected between January 2015 and November 2016. Analysing the report, the researchers say that although open defecation has become less common than it was 10 years ago, it is still highly prevalent, with more than half of rural households reporting open defecation. On average, change has been slow, even during SBM, add the authors. Joshi doesn’t buy the study citing the authors of the paper under-estimated the MIS published by the MDWS while analysing the sanitation coverage in India.

This brings us to the next big challenge that has the potential to create a situation similar to when India was not having toilets at all: faecal contamination that leads to pollution of landscapes and millions of unavoidable deaths. This has been the most pressing argument to bring in household toilets. To simply put, how would India dispose the solid and liquid waste generated out of the new toilets? This is a bigger problem than open defecation as the household faecal matter would be closer to people’s homes while defecation sites are at a distance from inhabited areas. One way we have brought in our wastes within our households, and the amount is mind boggling with the number of new toilets constructed: 1,00,000 tonnes of shit every day (See ‘Faulty toilets and faecal matter’) . For a country that just managed to treat 30 per cent of generated waste and sewage in urban areas, it is a humongous task but also inevitable to make the sanitation campaign effectively successful.

Source: MDWS and Rose, C., et al. 2015. The Characterization of Feces and Urine: A Review of the Literature to Inform Advanced Treatment Technology.

Once the villages become ODF, government focuses on solid liquid waste management. Although solid liquid waste management has been included as a part of ODF verification guidelines, states are hardly factoring this parameter. This is where use of right toilet technology comes into critical scrutiny. Saxena says, “Usage of toilets may not be sustainable as people are using wrong technologies.” Here the right technology is for managing solid and liquid waste coming out of household toilets. At present single-pit, twin-pit and toilets connected to a septic tank are available technological solutions. The rich can opt for the best solution while the poor in rural as well as urban areas would not be able to afford the right technology even with the meager help from the government. Iyer says, “People do want toilets that make treating the waste easier like the septic tank. But it is very expensive.” The ministry offers Rs 12,000 as incentive for construction of toilets and septic tank toilets are beyond this range.

Most of rural India is dependent on pit toilets. In such toilets solid and liquid wastes are treated in pits. But the problem is instead of a twin-pit system which is advocated by the experts, rural India is mostly using one-pit system. Says Saxena, “Technically there should be two small pits of 50 cubic feet capacity but unfortunately neither the size nor the number of pits are being monitored.”

Practically, there is no system to manage the waste except dumping them somewhere. For example Uttar Pradesh, which has reached 94 per cent toilet coverage, produces over 16,000 tonnes of faecal matter daily. Even a very poor country produces 75 g/person/day of faecal matter. Going by that calculation a minimum of 59,000 tonnes will be produced at the household level per day. Without the right toilet this faecal matter would be dumped close to our habitation and would affect the soil and the various sources of water. If the poorly-designed toilets are in an inundation-prone area, the stored faeces pose a major pollution and health hazard during the monsoons. Further, the high density of pit latrines and poorly made and maintained septic tanks can render the shallow aquifer water unfit for drinking because of nitrate and bacterial contamination.

There is also the vexing situation in single-pit scenario of whether to go for a deep or a shallow pit—the deep pits do not need emptying but can contaminate groundwater if they are very deep while the shallow ones need emptying in just a few years. A 2015 publication by the scientists of Dayananda Sagar College of Engineering, Bengaluru showed that the leach pit toilets contaminated the groundwater in rural Bengaluru and Ramanagara districts of Karnataka during all the seasons of a year near on site sanitation systems. On the other hand, according to a recent study on “Review of Household use of Septic Tanks and Faecal Sludge Management in Rural India”, people are concerned about the faecal sludge removal but give little importance to the proper disposal of faecal sludge matter. The local governments are unaware of any protocol for emptying faecal sludge.

A recent study by WaterAid India found that despite the promotion of twin-pit toilets by MDWS, there seemed to be high preference of septic tank toilets by the beneficiaries. Out of 1,000 households which were surveyed in the study 24 per cent preferred septic tanks. But the problem is that what people call septic tanks are not according to the Bureau of Indian Standards and thus this will surely lead to contamination of soil and water in the long run. Avinash Kumar, Policy Head, WaterAid India, says that there are almost 5.8 million toilets connected to wrong designs—single-pit or badly designed septic tanks. Hence as per the above calculation around 4,077 tonnes of raw faecal matter is dumped in the environment daily near the households.

There is a need of immediate modification of the single-pit and defective septic tanks. The single pit toilets can be retrofitted and converted to twin pits. In areas of raised water table or flood prone areas, ecosan (short for ecological sanitation) toilets can be the best option, as per Gramalaya, a Tiruchirappalli-based non-profit. The options given by the other research organisations are bio toilets and raised toilets. Phaydemand Shauchalay promoted by Megh Pyne Abhiyan, a non-profit based in Bihar, is constructed on a raised platform to ensure access even during floods. Its height is determined by the highest floodwater levels anticipated in the area. The toilet seat has two openings that collect urine and faecal matter. These are connected to two separate storage tanks located above the ground. Since it is a dry toilet, the breakdown of faecal matter does not create foul odour. The collection pits can be accessed by openings created by uncemented bricks positioned at the back of the ecosan toilet structure. The faecal matter can later be used as manure while the collected urine acts as a urea substitute.

MDWS has now started focusing on the sustainability of the ODF structure and they should also focus on right technologies, opine the experts. Now it is a vicious cycle: people get access to toilets with faulty design which in turn leads them to not using it. Researchers from the Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based policy advocacy organisation, travelled to different parts of Bihar where people are not using the toilets because right technologies for treating toilet waste are not there. The WaterAid study explains that the detailed data on the sub structure and its emptying process should be part of not only the post SBM sustainability survey but also part of ODF verification.

On September 10, the district administration of Jammu and Kashmir’s Udhampur district declared the whole district ODF. A total of 75,000 toilets have been constructed in all 230 panchayats of the district. Sanitation is everyone’s business and such victories must be celebrated but with caution. SBM must learn from the failure of the hardware-driven previous programmes. The previous programmes not only failed to meet the target but constructed toilets which were never used and ultimately added more excreta to the surrounding soil and water sources. The most important goal should be the safe disposal of faecal matter, otherwise the quality of life will never be improved and India will surely fail what it has achieved under SBM.

The trail
It's not enough to construct new toilets, MDWS must also restore dysfunctional ones

The conversion of dysfunctional toilets has become very important for attaining ODF status. Naresh Chandra Saxena, an advisor to MDWS, feels that the ministry is only talking about the new toilets and their usage but what about the old toilets constructed under programmes before SBM.

At present there are almost 2.4 million dysfunctional toilets with Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand being the top six states with this dubious distinction. During SBM almost 54 per cent of the dysfunctional toilets were converted to functional ones—the maximum conversion happening in West Bengal (92 per cent) and Tamil Nadu (86 per cent). Bihar has a huge problem of dysfunctional toilets. During SBM only 18 per cent of the 0.75 million dysfunctional toilets were converted.

Around R399.86 crores have been released under Swachh Bharat Kosh for conversion of dysfunctional toilets. Swachh Bharat Kosh was established in 2015 with contribution from individuals and corporates in the sanitation sector. It was seen that only 32 per cent of the released amount has been utilised as per the parliamentary standing committee report of 2017-18. The laggard state of Odisha could only spend 53 per cent of the R93 crores as per the committee report.

The 51st report of the standing committee on rural development has a strong recommendation on dysfunctional toilets. The committee feels that there is a huge confusion over data as dysfunctional toilets are also included in the list of completed toilets.

The committee recommended MDWS to remove these toilets from the list to have a clear picture on constructed and functional toilets in the country.


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