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Swachh Bharat: Mission Possible

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VK Madhavan
Imagine having to sneak out before dawn, to find a safe place to defecate, every day – the norm particularly for millions of women and young girls. In 2014, two out of three people who defecated in the open, anywhere in the world, were Indian.
Since 2014, as per the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation, over 100 million individual household toilets have been constructed. Even considering an average household size of five that is five hundred million people gaining access to a toilet in eight years. In such a short span, there is no other parallel.
Let this sink in. Results from the National Family Health Survey 5 (2109-21) however, revealed that only 76% of rural households had access to a toilet. The survey did not take into account the shared toilets and community sanitary complexes that were constructed to ensure sanitation access to all people, leaving no one behind. To date, more than 2 lakh CSCS have been constructed across rural India.
Scale matters in India, and Swachh Bharat Mission offers invaluable lessons on delivering on scale. Committed political leadership led by, no less than the Prime Minister of India, who devoted significant time and attention to SBM,was the first significant differentiator. The second ingredient for success was public investment. Over 60,000 crores were released by the Union Government for Swachh Bharat Mission – Grameen (SBM-G) during the first phase.
The third critical ingredient, was in making toilets not just a priority but aspirational, and sanitation a topic of everyday conversation. Campaigns fronted by celebrities, innovative use of media and periodic events across the country kept the spotlight on the issue. The fourth was the ‘mission mode’ that was adopted to take on this audacious goal thatan inspired administrative machinery across the country, rose to respond to.
Concerns about the future of sustained efforts with regard to sanitation, post October 2019 were put to rest with the announcement of SBM – Grameen Phase II. The key priorities are to ensure that no one gets left behind, on sustaining the gains made during Phase I of the mission and in moving beyond, to focus on solid and liquid waste management in every village. Since the commencement of Phase II, resources have not been a constraint either. Close to 8,000 crores have been spent by the Union government alone, in the first two years, and an allocation of just over 7,000 crores is earmarked for the current financial year. Add, the corresponding investment made by State Governments and the availability of funds through the fifteenth finance commission allocations, and it is clear that access to public investment is not a limiting factor.
The framing of the SBM Phase II guidelines had been prescient in focussing on leaving no one behind. Since the commencement of Phase II of SBM, over 7 million individual household toilets have been constructed. This continued commitment to inclusion is critical.
Jal Jeevan Mission’s transformative vision, can make, what is normal for any reader of this column, which is water available within the household through a tap, a reality for every household in the country and liberate women and adolescent girls in this country from the drudgery of having to fetch water each day.
However, the increased availability of water within the household will also proportionately increase the amount of waste water generated. The risk that this accumulated waste-water will create a new health hazard or will drain into existing water bodies contaminating them, is real.SBM Phase II seeks to address this on priority. The treatment of waste water will not just help averting further health risks, but can contribute to recharge of our depleting aquifers or could be recycled and reused, helping in the creation of a circular economy around water.
To address this, the Government of India launched Sujlam 1.0 campaign during which more than 10 lakhs soak pits were constructed in a short span of 100 days. Induced by the success of that campaign, Sujlam 2.0 was launched on World Water Day – March 22, 2022 and since then, more than 4 lakhs soak pits were constructed for effective and economically viable management of increased waste water that is being generated.
Similarly, in recognition of the significant number of toilets with septic tanks or single pit toilets which may require emptying in the near future, there is a growing emphasis on ensuring faecal waste management in rural areas. Decentralised solutions or shared facilities with peri-urban or urban areas are being explored. Finally, SBM II seeks to ensure that solid waste is collected and managed, thereby ridding our villages of a growing eyesore and an ecological and health hazard.
The intent is clear and resources are available. What then, is required to translate this into a reality?
Good quality information and analysis is critical for decision making and for making appropriate and timely course corrections. We must pause and celebrate the existence of independent surveys of the government such as the National Family Health Surveys (NFHS) and the National Sample Surveys which not just provide a wealth of information but more importantly allow for comparisons between administrative data and those from independent surveys.SBM Phase II needs good data and the insights thereof to create the desired impact.
Today, solid and liquid waste management is considered a priority under SBM-G Phase II to ensure that gains made during phase I are sustained in villages. More than 72,000 villages have declared themselves as ODF plus which means they have in place systems to manage solid and liquid waste and are visually clean.
The Mission aims to ensure widespread awareness and demand generation for the management of solid and liquid waste. Focussed campaigns are being organised to trigger this and to reinforce the same at the village and household level. Clear incentives for action – both personal and at a community level are being created.
That said, investments in solid or liquid waste management will require constant operation and maintenance. There is a need for a corresponding and sustained investment in the capacities of Panchayati Raj Institutions and/or their statutory bodies to plan and respond to these challenges. In this regard capacity building programmes are being organised in association with development partners. Appropriate mechanisms to manage the infrastructure and systems that are created for solid and liquid waste management are being put in place.
The first principle for planning for solid or liquid waste management will need to be to try and treat this as close to the source as possible. Segregation of waste for example, has to be the starting point. If bio-degradable waste can be treated at a household level and used, the quantum of waste to be managed will diminish. Economies of scale for waste management are critical. If toilets can retrofitted, wherever possible and appropriate, into twin leach pit toilets, then the quantum of faecal waste to be collected, conveyed and treated will diminish. Similarly, if waste water can be treated at the household level then the need for complex treatment solutions and the accompanying costs and complexities of maintenance will diminish.
All of this will need to be based on context – the size and nature of habitations, population density and the ecology. Climate change poses new problems and our sanitation solutions need to be resilient to dramatic changes in the micro-climate.
Finally, none of this can be achieved without residents of our villages actively engaging with this from design through operation and maintenance. This requires concerted action by individuals and institutions in a sustained manner. We need to accelerate momentum of this nation-wide campaignto achieve the objective of the PM’s vision to make India clean and healthy and meet the SDGs ahead of time.
Swachh Bharat Mission Phase II has raised the bar. It recognises that access to individual household toilets, was but a first step, and in the long run, what we need is sustained behaviours and safely managed sanitation. This is an invaluable public health investment and can improve the quality of life of our citizens.
This is far too important, to be left to the government alone. This has to become everyone’s business.
(The author is Chief Executive, Water Aid India)

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