Safe sanitation enhances good health, productivity, women empowerment and livelihood opportunities

In pursuance to the clarion call of the Hon’ble Prime Minister Sh. Narendra Modi on 15th August, 2014; over 108 million household toilets were constructed with the participation of masses, providing access to safe sanitation to all the communities in rural India during Phase I of the Swachh Bharat Mission Grameen. Achieving open defecation free (ODF) status was an incredible feat that the country can be immensely proud of and it has been well documented as a learning experience for other nations.  

Nevertheless, if the ODF status has to be sustained and sanitation managed safely while underpinning human dignity, it is important to go beyond the toilet and examine all components of sanitation value chain i.e. containment, emptying, transport, treatment and reuse or disposal of faecal waste. The disposal and treatment of such waste still poses a huge third generation challenge and has tremendous implications on public health and safety of the people. It is indeed a serious business that should leave no room for manual scavenging.

Faecal Sludge Management(FSM) is central to achieving the vision of an ‘Open Defecation Free’ Plus India and that has been one of our focus areas in Swachh Bharat Mission Grameen Phase II, along with construction of community toilets, effective management of solid and liquid waste and visual cleanliness of villages. FSM is critical for delivering safe sanitation in rural areas due to the considerable number of toilets linked to on-site sanitation, such as septic tanks and single pits.

The faecal sludge treatment plant (FSTP) in Kalibillod village of Indore District in Madhya Pradesh is one example worth emulating.  Designed to cater to a population of 45,870 living in a cluster of 3 Gram Panchayats adjoining an industrial town Pitampura, the FSTP plant which has been constructed using local materials has a capacity to treat 3 kilo litres of faecal sludge per day. Safe collection is done by trained service provider with the help of a desludging vehicle that can transport 3000 litres of sludge per day. After a structured process when faecal sludge is passed through a screening chamber and a planted drying bed, the dried solid can be used for co-composting within the same premises having solid waste segregation shed. Meanwhile the liquid effluent is passed through a planted gravel filter, a polishing pond and the treated effluent is used within the facility for landscaping. Operation and maintenance of the plant which was constructed at an all-inclusive cost of Rs. 32 lakhs is competently managed by the gram panchayat.

There are similar functional projects in some other States. However, given that sewerage systems are practically non-existent in rural India, there is need for increasing focus on safe management of faecal waste generated from on-site containment systems. Some technologies, such as twin leach pits, provide on-site treatment, and if correctly constructed and operated, these can be safely emptied and reused at the household level. Other technologies, such as single pits, septic tanks require services for emptying and transportation of the faecal sludge to the treatment facilities for its subsequent reuse or disposal.

This emphasizes the need to look beyond toilets and to ensure that faecal pathogens are prevented from re-entering the environment and posing a health risk. One common pathway for re-entering of faecal pathogens into the environment is the contamination of water bodies and groundwater, by means of overflow and seepage from poorly built sanitation systems.

These issues are further exacerbated due to the lack of formal mechanized service providers when it comes to emptying, transportation and disposal of sludge. There is a dominance of informal small-scale contractors for these roles which makes it difficult to monitor their processes for collection and disposal and therefore, institutionalizing best practices and regulations can be challenging. Additionally, lack of resources such as suction emptier trucks, safety equipment, trained personnel hamper service delivery to households. 

That said, the most preferred toilets built as a part of the SBM-I are twin pit toilets. The twin leach pit latrine is easy to construct, use and maintain. When one of the twin pits gets filled, it can be emptied at household level without any external support or additional cost.

Proper functioning of toilets can be ensured by converting (retrofitting) all single pit toilets to twin pit toilets; as also repairs which need to be done for the superstructure, foundation, Y chamber and pit. In case of toilets connected to septic tanks it’s important to build a leach pit to safely dispose the partially treated wastewater coming out from tank.  

The Government of India, in February 2020, approved Phase-II of the Swachh Bharat Mission (Grameen) (SBM [G]) with a total outlay of Rs. 1,40,881 crores to focus on the sustainability of Open Defecation Free (ODF) status and Solid and Liquid Waste Management (SLWM).The programme will continue to work towards ensuring that no one is left behind, and everyone uses a toilet.

SBM II recommends that treatment of faecal sludge be planned for clusters of villages, where the district must quantify the faecal sludge generated, identify suitable land, and it is imperative to choose technology which is low cost and easy to operate and maintain. 

The theme for World Toilet Day 2021 is ‘Valuing Toilets.’  The campaign draws attention to the fact that toilets – and the sanitation systems that support them – are underfunded, poorly managed or neglected in many parts of the world, with devastating consequences for health, economics and the environment, particularly in the poorest and most marginalized communities.

As we observe World Toilet Day, I encourage you to take action in your respective areas to tackle the global sanitation crisis and assist our country to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6: Water and Sanitation for all by 2030.  For when we invest in safe sanitation, we can enhance good health and productivity, augment women’s empowerment and create livelihood opportunities.  



Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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