Sanitation issues in Urban India

Urban India was declared open defecation free (ODF) on October 2, 2019. All states have been certified as ODF, according to the statistics of the urban affairs ministry. However, the reality is different compared to claims. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has made a significant impact on both rural and urban sanitation and the announcement of open defecation free (ODF) cities is becoming frequent now than in the last three years. But with ODF comes the next challenge, the sustainability of ODF status something many urban bodies are likely to face in the coming days.

The results of the fifth edition of the annual cleanliness survey ‘Swachh Survekshan 2020’ was released recently. The survey was completed in 28 days and 1.87 crore people across 4,242 cities, 62 cantonment boards and 92 towns along river Ganga participated in it. Sanitation in urban areas is a different challenge from sanitation in rural areas. People in urban spaces are more mobile, use public and community toilets more frequently and many households in urban areas do not have adequate space for individual toilets. Sustaining ODF status in a city is huge challenge the key is to cover every aspect of sanitation related behaviour in the urban space

  • Non-usage of toilets:
    • One independent survey shows toilets are not used by up to half the population in some places, underscoring the challenge ahead.
  • Poor quality of toilets:
    • The challenges for the campaign will be to build toilets which are women and physically disabled friendly and have continuous piped water supply.
    • many of these toilets do not have proper water supply, lighting, ventilation and liquid waste management system.
    • Instead of chasing numbers, the focus should be on building quality toilets for people to use
  • Piped Water Supply:
    • Water supply remains a critical area even under the Swachh Bharat Mission.
    • Piped water supply is one of the essentials of having a sound sanitation system. But laying of pipes for water supply is a huge challenge in urban India.
    • It becomes even more challenging to draw plans and restructure existing water pipelines in urban areas due to involvement of various agencies like civic bodies and urban local bodies.
    • There is often non-cooperation at various levels, resulting in delays in implementation of plans.
    • This leads to a big gap between the number of toilets constructed and toilets with piped water supply
  • Sanitation Problem:
    • Drainage is a more severe problem in urban areas as many drainage systems in urban India are old constructions which often lead faecal sludge directly to water bodies, resulting in environmental pollution.
    • Absence of proper drainage means that faecal waste accumulates near the toilet area, resulting in health hazards.
    • Many of the toilets built under the mission had drainage systems which carried sewage directly to rivers.
  • Some of the other impediments in achieving ODF cities or villages include lack of clarity and motivation at local level, lack of funds for construction of toilets, lack of space for construction of individual toilets, issues linked with building permissions to toilets, construction and maintenance of community toilets and lack of awareness and behavioural issues at household level.
  • ODF sustenance in urban areas can be achieved after a number of ancillary factors related to sanitation are taken into consideration.
  • Regular monitoring of open spaces to discourage open defecation:
    • A strict and uncompromising clause of an ODF area is that at any point of time, no person should be seen defecating in the open.
    • Open spaces near railway tracks and slums should be developed to create gardens, playgrounds or any recreational space.
    • Conversion of open spaces into gardens or playgrounds also inculcates a sense of cleanliness among people habituated to defecating in the open, and compels them to use toilets.
  • Encouraging construction of own toilets:
    • Space in urban households is a major hindrance in construction of individual toilets.
    • In case of severe constraint, group toilets can be constructed where two-three households knowing each other well come together to build and use a toilet and contribute towards a city’s ODF sustenance.
    • Geo-tagging of toilets available in nearby areas, accessible from smartphones is a trend that is helping people discover toilets nearest to them.
    • In many cities like Delhi, Bengaluru and Mumbai, toilets in petrol pumps, malls and restaurants have been allowed to be used by the public for nominal charges, ensuring that people who do not have access to a household or public toilet yet, can use alternatives available to them.
  • Ensuring uniform sewage disposal mechanisms across an ODF urban area:
    • Disposal of septage should be directly linked to sewage treatment plants, so as to ensure that the waste from the toilets go straight for treatment.
    • The Smart Cities Mission looks to connect the drainage systems of public and household toilets to sewage treatment plants, and smoothen the flow of septage.
  • Strengthening complaint redressal systems:
    • In an ODF city, instances of open defecation should be dealt with strictly.
    • A separate system of taking in and dealing with complaints related to open defecation, unclean open spaces and ill-maintained community and public toilets will help in the sustenance of a city’s ODF status.
    • Civic bodies in charge of building and maintaining toilets should also be responsible towards ensuring that breaching the ODF rule must be penalised accordingly.
  • Promoting ODF status of a city among residents:
    • The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has been repeatedly called out as a people’s movement.
    • The ODF tag for a city is a success for its residents, as much as it is for the civic body in charge. Residents must be made aware of the role they played in a city becoming ODF.
    • Civic bodies must promote the ODF tag of a city among residents and ask for their cooperation in maintaining the ODF status.
    • This can inculcate a sense of responsibility associated with cleanliness among the residents, and will motivate them to do their bit to maintain the ODF status of their city.

Efforts should be focused on harnessing social movements to create new social norms for ending open defecation while challenging deeply entrenched practices of caste, gender inequity and social exclusion. Advocacy to promote the installation of mass handwashing stations in schools and preschools to allow for daily handwashing exercises to teach good hygiene habits.