Punjab closer to ODF sustainability with community toilet guidelines

Recommendations not clear on how to treat waste, reuse groundwater   

By Swati Bhatia
Published: Tuesday 05 January 2021

After achieving ‘open-defecation free’ (ODF) status, India has focused on sustaining this gain in the second phase of its rural sanitation programme. Construction of community sanitation complexes (CSC), or community toilets is an important aspect of the Swachh Bharat Mission Phase II guidelines. This is to ensure that the country’s migrant population and those who don’t have the means to build toilets in their homes are provided access to public conveniences.

In February 2020, the Union government's Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation (DDWS) under Swachh Bharat Mission (Grameen) announced guidelines stating necessary conditions for constructing a CSC in every village that has more than 100 households for ensuring ODF sustainability.

The government of Punjab, under its ‘Swachh and Swasth Punjab’ mission, released guidelines the same month for construction of CSCs in rural areas.

These guidelines define CSC as a toilet facility meant for use by the local community and the floating population, with the objective of providing privacy to the beneficiaries along with measures to ensure safe disposal of human waste.

The criteria for construction of a CSC such as site selection, availability of land, funds, construction, operation and maintenance of the toilet facility are also provided in the guidelines. The document lays out the tasks to be undertaken during the planning phases such as community mobilisation, involvement of all stakeholders, among others.

The suggestions identify the right to privacy and dignity to the women in the villages and access to toilets to the marginalised sections of the society.

The directions recommend organisation of Gram Sabha and documenting the resolution and attendance in meetings, along with detailing the financial structure and fund flow at every stage from proposal to approval.

Under the implementation framework, the guidelines discuss the design of the CSCs, usage of environment-friendly technologies, completion timeframe and arrangement for management of faecal sludge. They also talk about timely desludging of septic tanks.

Various models to ensure proper operation and maintenance are suggested, detailing monitoring, reporting and verification procedures so that CSCs are not rendered useless due to lack of maintenance.

However, the answer to ‘how’ the above suggestions will be strictly implemented is missing in the document.

In absence of treatment facilities, where would the faecal sludge go? Will it be dumped in the open? How many CSCs per capita population should be built? Every gram panchayat should develop a detailed plan on the technologies to be used for management of faecal sludge.

A recent study by Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment highlights similar problems with CSCs built in schools and anganwadis in Alwar, Rajasthan. These facilities were rendered useless because of the location and unavailability of water. Also, the number of CSC were found to be inadequate and those that were made were not disability-friendly, as is recommended in the guidelines by the Punjab government.

Punjab is majorly dependent on groundwater resources for its water requirements and so, treating and reusing water for flushing in toilets should be made mandatory. The guidelines focus on the construction of toilets and timely de-sludging of septic tanks. However, the question is, do they have sufficient treatment facilities? If yes, are they connected with every CSC?

If the answer to each of these questions is ‘no’, then the guidelines should be promoting decentralised technologies such as twin leach pits or soak pits or EcoSan toilets (depending on the groundwater conditions) which reduce the requirement for desludging and treatment.

Faecal sludge would be automatically decomposed and can be used as manure in the villages. This shall drastically reduce the maintenance cost and should be covered in the guidelines.

We should understand that the ultimate aim of the second phase of the mission doesn’t end at constructing toilets but is to ensure that there is proper treatment and use of wastewater and sludge. It is time to promote the goal of developing sustainable toilets.  

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