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Can merely building toilets and clearing litter make India clean?

Can merely building toilets and clearing litter make India clean?
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Can Merely Building Toilets and Clearing Litter Make India Clean?. Alandoor, a municipality of 1.7 lakh people in Tamil Nadu got its underground...

Alandoor, a municipality of 1.7 lakh people in Tamil Nadu got its underground sewerage system in the 1990s through a PPP model with 29% of capital funds sourced from its own residents. Leadership of the then Municipal Chairman helped transform this town, plagued with nuisance of unhygienic collection of sewage in septic tanks which contaminated water bodies and ground water reservoirs. Alandoor is now reaping the benefits of a hygienic environment and rise in property prices. This project is one of the earliest successful PPP projects in India and has effective Operations and Maintenance (O&M) through user fee collection and success of the Swachh Bharat Mission depends directly on giving a central role to such effective local government leadership.

Swachh Bharat Mission

The Swachh Bharat Mission envisages a ‘Clean India’ by 2nd October, 2019. It acknowledges that if 48% of India needs toilet coverage i.e. providing access to 11 crore households in rural areas and 1 crore households in urban areas, we need to build toilets as well as initiate behavioral change to use them. However, guidelines and funding share of the rural and urban components of this mission show toilet-centricity. But will this toilet centric approach really help achieve ‘Swachhata’? The awareness campaigns, theme song, pledge and nomination of celebrities (on the lines of the successful ALS challenge) have sensationalized the term ‘Swachh Bharat’. But are we really addressing the key problems responsible for poor sanitary conditions in India? In lay terms, sanitation should involve identifying all the interlinked sources of generation of sewage, solid and liquid waste in our communities and finding appropriate mechanisms for their collection, transport and safe disposal with maximum efforts to recycle the waste.

Swachh Bharat Mission should instead have a ‘Systems Approach’ and provide necessary paraphernalia to the toilets. It will work well only if it includes sewerage and sewage treatment infrastructure, solid waste management, stormwater drains and conservation of rivers and water bodies and an institutional mechanism following the ‘Principle of Subsidiarity’.

Sewerage Network and Sewage Treatment System

Just as uninterrupted water supply is vital to keep the toilets functional and avoid slippages, sewerage systems are necessary for safe disposal of sewage. Unfortunately, only 30% of urban India has sewerage network coverage and only 22% of the sewage generated is actually treated. If we build new toilets but ignore sewerage systems and STPs, we will have newer challenges of contaminated ground water sources, unhygienic drains and public health crisis.

Municipal Solid Waste Management

Solid waste management receives complete apathy from our municipal bodies. Poor collection and handling of waste and stinking dumping yards are not new to our urban lives. But now that urban sprawls have surpassed the dump yards, rather than hunting for new dump yards, we should find ways to sustainably recycle and dispose waste. The recommendations on viable technologies for waste to energy conversion and cost estimations by ‘Taskforce on Waste to Energy’ headed by Dr Kasturirangan needs attention. It is appalling that we are treating only 19% of the 62 million tonnes of waste generated every year. We cannot just walk up to the dump yards, roll up our sleeves, clean and click a few selfies without finding a sustainable solution.

Stormwater Drainage System

Encroachment of wetlands, ponds, waterbodies and pavements result in water crisis in the cities. Simultaneously, convectional rains in monsoons leave the cities flooded with stranded traffic and unhygienic pot holes filled with water. Stormwater drains are necessary to ensure that stormwater does not flood the sewerage drains and also help recharge the water bodies and ground water reservoirs. Most of the million plus populated cities in India have archaic stormwater drains with little coverage. Brihanmumbai Stormwater Drainage project of Mumbai, is fraught with cost escalations ever since it started in 2005.

Conservation of Rivers and Water Bodies

Prof AK Gosain, IIT Delhi, emphasizes that sanitation should encompass sewerage systems, municipal solid waste management and stormwater drainage systems. Conservation of rivers and water bodies is linked to these three subjects. Since impunity in the case of river Ganga has led to its unsustainable levels of impurity, let us pay early attention to our rivers and water bodies. If these water bodies have to sustain the cities and remain ecologically healthy, we must not resort to curative solutions but plug or treat the emissions from point and non point sources into these bodies. If we ensure that dependent population does not resort to open defecation (by constructing toilets), achieve 100% sewerage coverage and sewage treatment facilities, recharge their water resources, have strict regulations on industrial emissions and penalties for reckless disposal of solid or liquid waste by individuals or organisations, then we will have addressed a significant share of this problem. Note that the cost of cleaning up rivers will overlap with that spent on the above mentioned interlinked systems. We should scale up and revamp the dismal infrastructure and collect resources for operation and maintenance (O&M) of the same. For the former, we need the Union Government to provide, say 20% of the costs but for the latter the local governments should have the will and capacity to collect user fee for O&M costs.

Role of Empowered Local Governments is vital to Swachh Bharat Mission’s success

It is a welcome move that the 14th Finance Commission recommended 42% devolution in divisible funds to states and more than doubled the grant for local governments and also recommended that nearly all of this money be spent on improving basic services. The Swachh Bharat Mission is thus, an opportunity to complement toilet construction with the above mentioned integrated systems and devolve funds to local governments. This will rectify the mismatch between their responsibility and authority because at present, the guidelines of the Swachh Bharat Mission see them as mere implementing and monitoring agencies. An independent district level Ombudsman with statutory powers for monitoring and accountability will ensure effective service delivery at the local level. The success of Alandoor can be replicated elsewhere only if local governments play a central role so that citizens and tax payers can directly see the link between their taxes and public service delivery and their vote resulting in real development.

By Mohammad Khasimul Asif

The author is a research intern at the Foundation for Democratic Reforms

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