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Insights into Editorial: More than just a counting game

Insights into Editorial: More than just a counting game



November 19th was World Toilet Day, with the theme ‘Wastewater and Faecal Sludge Management’.

In India, there is greater awareness about the importance of using toilets, largely due to the high profile, flagship programme Swachh Bharat Mission launched in 2014, so much so that even Bollywood capitalised on this topic in the recent film Akshay Kumar starrer, Toilet — Ek Prem Katha, where a marriage is saved thanks to toilets.

However, in real life, the sanitation story only begins with toilets, something clearly stated by the targets under the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals. These targets are not just about ‘toilets’ but also suggest improvements to the entire cycle of sanitation, which certainly begins with toilets but has to end with safe waste disposal.

On the occasion of World Toilet Day today, PM stressed the need to end the concept of open defecation saying that this is the best gift that can be given to women.

World Toilet Day

The World Toilet Day is observed every year to raise awareness about of the global sanitation crisis and encourage people to use toilets.

  • United Nations General Assembly designated 19th November as World Toilet Day to help break taboos around toilets and make sanitation for all a global development priority.
  • The day is about inspiring action to tackle the global sanitation crisis.
  • Today, 4.5 billion people live without a household toilet that safely disposes of their waste.
  • Toilets save lives because human waste spreads killer diseases.
  • The Sustainable Development Goals, launched in 2015, include a target to ensure everyone has access to a safely-managed household toilet by 2030.

Why Is Sanitation Important?

Sanitation is intrinsically linked to health, and unless faecal waste is treated properly and disposed of safely, it will find its way back into our bodies and make us sick either by contaminating our sources of drinking water or getting into the food chain.

  • Illnesses like diarrhea, worms, cholera and malaria caused by poor sanitation needlessly take the lives of millions of people every day,
  • Diarrhea alone responsible for the deaths of 5,000 children a day, says Unicef.
  • Providing sanitary conditions such as proper toilet facilities, clean running water and a means of safe garbage disposal can therefore prevent the incidence of such widespread disease and death.
  • Sanitation plays an important part in ensuring that children have fair access to an education which will help them succeed in life as adults. 
  • Sanitation can help to promote the economic development of a country by providing the means for food production and a healthy workforce while reducing the drain on public health services.
  • Sanitation plays an important part in protecting the environment and promoting sustainability. According to the United Nations, reusing human waste through ecological sanitation can produce fertilizers which can be used in agriculture. 

What Is Sanitation?

Sanitation is the process of providing services and facilities which safely dispose of human waste and maintain public hygiene. This includes using clean and safe toilets, keeping water sources clean and disposing of garbage safely. Sanitation is a global issue which affects the health and well-being of the population, food production and the environment.

India’s National Urban Sanitation Policy (NUSP, 2008) defines sanitation as “safe management of human excreta, including its safe confinement treatment, disposal and associated hygiene-related practices.”

The full cycle of sanitation has four stages:

  • Access to toilets;
  • safe containment;
  • conveyance either through the sewerage network or de-sludging trucks,
  • Treatment and disposal.

The faecal waste needs to be handled safely at each of these stages in order to gain public health benefits. Following policy goals have been specified under National Urban Sanitation Policy (NUSP):

  • Awareness Generation and Behaviour Change
  • Open Defecation Free Cities
  • Integrated City-Wide Sanitation
  • Sanitary and Safe Disposal
  • Proper Operation & Maintenance of all Sanitary Installations

Sewerage systems and Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs)

Urban India faces considerable gaps along the full cycle of sanitation due to inadequate sewerage and sewage treatment systems in all cities.

Sewerage refers to fully sealed pipes that are underground, and must not be confused with open storm water drains that are supposed to carry only rainwater.

  • After decades of investment, India has managed to connect only a little more than a third of its urban households, most of which are located in metropolitan cities, to sewerage systems.
  • This is because sewerage systems and sewage treatment plants (STPs) — a preferred system in most western countries — are not only expensive but are also complicated to maintain.

An alternative to sewerage systems is something known as on-site systems. Septic tanks and pit latrines, which are prevalent in many Indian households, fall into this category. If these systems are designed, constructed and managed properly, they can be perfectly safe options.

Safe containment, collection and treatment are known as septage management or faecal sludge management (FSM), and are being increasingly recognised by the Government of India as a viable option.

Why Management of On-site Sanitation needs attention?

  • At least a third of Urban Indian Households depend on on-site sanitation.
  • Management of septage from on-site facilities appears to be an area of neglect
  • Urban India has limited Sewage Treatment Facilities and little experience of Septage Treatment Facilities.

Multi-stage challenges

Though viable, there are several challenges for FSM across all stages.

  1. Construction of On-site systems:

On-site systems are not constructed properly. While the designs of ‘septic’ tanks and leach pits have been set out in standards issued in government documents, house owners and masons are often not aware of these.

The most severe consequence of these poorly designed pits is the potential contamination of groundwater.

  1. De-sludging:

In addition, they are not de-sludged at regular intervals. Faecal waste needs to be transported using de-sludging vehicles.

  1. Treatment of sludge:

Once collected, the waste needs to be treated properly to ensure that it does not land up in our lakes and rivers. There aren’t enough treatment facilities to guarantee proper treatment of the sludge.

Need of the Hour:

  • Raising awareness about correct design and construction practices of on-site systems. Urban local bodies and State governments could start by ensuring that the larger containment systems such as community toilets and public toilets are properly constructed and managed.
  • Permission could be granted to new buildings, especially large apartment complexes only when the applicants show proper septage construction designs.
  • The safety of sanitary workers who clean tanks and pits must be ensured by enforcing occupational safety precautions and the use of personal protective equipment as set out in the law.
  • Home-owners and residents must empty their tanks and pits regularly, thereby preventing leaks and overflow.
  • Governments must invest in creating treatment facilities that our cities can afford.

A way forward

After the National Urban Sanitation Policy (NUSP) in 2008, a national policy on Faecal Sludge and Septage Management (FSSM) was released earlier this year.

  • Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Odisha have released State-wide septage management guidelines and taken concrete steps to execute these policies.
  • While de-sludging vehicles and robust informal markets exist for de-sludging services in some States, others are either procuring vehicles for their urban local bodies or encouraging private players to get into this.
  • Tamil Nadu has decided to utilise existing infrastructure, namely STPs, and allowed the co-treatment of faecal sludge in these facilities.
  • It has also put in additional infrastructure called decanting stations at some pumping stations to make it easier for de-sludging vehicles to deposit their waste.
  • Devanahalli in Bengaluru has a dedicated Faecal Sludge Treatment Plant (FSTP) operational since 2015.

Thus, there are many promising steps being taken, but much more needs to be done if we are to truly become an open-defecation free nation.