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Swachh Bharat Mission: Toilet-building frenzy takes focus off waste management

Only Rs 1.5 crore has been set aside for IEC activities in this fiscal for SBM (Urban) and only 17.6% of the solid waste generated is being processed

Bhaswar Kumar  |  New Delhi 

Swachh Bharat Mission: Toilet-building frenzy takes focus off waste management

Arguing that building toilets alone will not solve India’s sanitation problems might sound counter-intuitive, especially amid the feverish pace at which some states are spending on the Centre’s Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), even overshooting their budgetary allocations. However, a close look at SBM data reveals that despite the visible commitment to the programme shown by the central and state authorities, there has been a decline in focus on certain important aspects like ‘information, education and communication’ (IEC) activities and preparedness for solid-waste management.

According to the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MoDWS), of the 111.15 million rural households that were without toilets in the 2012 baseline survey, 16.54 million have been covered under SBM (Rural) to date. The Centre for Policy Research’s Budget Briefs report on SBM (Rural) shows allocation for the initiative in 2015-16 was increased by 27 per cent over the previous financial year to Rs 3,625 crore. MoDWS data also show that Rs 5,233.22 crore has already been spent on the programme in rural India so far this financial year, compared with the Rs 2,240.58 crore released for SBM.

However, the Budget Briefs report says: “Construction activities account for the bulk of SBM (Rural) expenditure. In 2014-15, over 90 per cent of rural sanitation funds were allocated for construction of different types of toilets... IEC activities constituted only five per cent of the total SBM expenditure...”

Data from the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) reveal that only Rs 89 crore of the total sanction of Rs 942.8644 for SBM (Urban) in 2014-15 was earmarked for IEC. In 2015-16, of the Rs 333.52 crore released so far, only Rs 1.5 crore has been set aside for IEC activities.

Commenting on the need for initiating behavioural change with regard to open defecation and the drawbacks of excessively focusing on construction alone, Ankit Tulsyan, a consultant with TERI Water Division for the USAID Project on Urban WASH, says: “Several Planning Commission reports have in the past reiterated that ‘mere construction of latrines does not assure the usage of these sanitation facilities’. Several studies have corroborated this.”

“Merely constructing toilets shall not yield ‘Swachh Bharat’. We would again commit the same mistake as we have in the past. The SBM (Rural) guidelines suggest of a very robust five-tier implementation structure. A state needs to ensure it is implemented in its full intent to achieve the results. In urban areas, the implementation structure is only three-tiered and does not talk about creating a cadre of ‘Swachhta Doots’ (cleanliness agents); there the government can invite civil society organisations and facilitate its implementation,” he adds.

“To initiate behaviour change, there have been some successful innovative pilots done by organisations in India and Kenya, where they offered discount vouchers or cash-back on usage of toilets for a certain period of time. The government can take a closer look at these pilots and upscale them,” Tulsyan says.

According to MoUD, applications have been received for 3,171,936 individual household latrines (IHHL) till October this year under the urban component of SBM. Of these, work has commenced on 1,769,819 IHHLs and been completed on 537,338. According to the same set of data, a total of 106,543 community and public toilets had been identified or sanctioned for construction; 27,134 have been completed to date.

Another area that has been missing in the authorities’ focus is solid-waste management — steps for treating human waste — which should also go hand-in-hand with the construction of toilets, especially in urban areas. According to a 2015 report by World Health Organization and Unicef’s Joint Monitoring Group, India, from 1990 to 2015, saw a 31 percentage point reduction in the proportion of population defecating openly.

Among the countries that outperformed India in this field, Vietnam saw a 39 percentage point decline during the period, but a 2011 World Bank report on sanitation in Vietnam found: “While access to an improved private toilet is 94 per cent in urban areas, less than 10 per cent are connected to sewerage networks with treatment.” The report also found that the estimated overall economic costs of poor sanitation in Vietnam stood at $780 million per year at 2005 prices. India does not fare much better; MoUD’s 2015 report on SBM (Urban) shows that out of 145,085 million tonnes of total waste generated in municipalities in a day, only 17.6 per cent was being processed.

Commenting on India’s options in the light of the Vietnam example, Tulsyan says: “Under SBM’s ‘mission-mode’ approach to eliminating open defecation, we are most likely to follow the same trajectory as these countries. The government should take a systems approach for tackling this sanitation crisis. Faecal sludge management planning should go hand-in-hand with the toilet infrastructure creation. In urban areas, the government can lay more emphasis on decentralised sewage treatment plants (STPs) and community toilets, which are rapidly emerging as sustainable business models. For example, In India, Bengaluru has brought in a decentralised STP Policy and successful community toilet models are being run by an NGO in Tiruchirapally and many other places.”

(Data sets derived from government sources are subject to continuous and ongoing revision)

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First Published: Fri, November 20 2015. 00:22 IST