Solving the Sanitation Crisis in India


SEATTLE — Sanitation is described by UNICEF as a comprehensive term referring to “interventions that reduce human exposure to diseases by providing a clean environment”. Certain poor and developing parts of the world are in dire need of such interventions, as human exposure to fecal matter has been responsible for large numbers of illnesses and deaths among children due to intestinal infections and food and water contamination. It is estimated that 1.4 million children die each year due to diseases caused by unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation. At present, 2.4 billion people do not use proper sanitation. Worldwide, 946 million people practice open defecation; 564 million of these live in India. The sanitation crisis is so pronounced in India that nearly half of its 1.2 billion people do not have toilets at home.

Clean India Campaign a Major Effort to Combat Sanitation Crisis in India

While India has been grappling with the problem of poor sanitation since its independence, a significant step was taken in 2014 when the current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA), or Clean India Campaign. The campaign aims to build 100 million toilets in the country by 2019 to tackle the problems associated with poor sanitation, especially open defecation, which is practiced by 44 percent of the population.

It is estimated that since then, sanitation coverage has increased from 41.92 percent in 2014 to 64.18 percent in 2017. In 2017, the government also managed to reach the halfway mark by building more than 50 million toilets in the country and seven states/union territories were declared Open Defecation Free (ODF). Under the SBA campaign, 475 cities have been certified ODF.

Urban Areas Work to Build Adequate Sanitation Infrastructure

However, the government’s attempts at creating awareness, building community latrines on a large scale and providing subsidies for constructing latrines in homes have not ended the sanitation crisis entirely. With the influx of people into cities, there is not only a shortage of space but also of sanitation facilities. Currently, 157 million people in Indian cities lack access to private toilets. Most drainage and sewage systems are outdated and not equipped to process the large amounts of human waste produced by the cities and their innumerable informal settlements. There is also a lack of adequate waste treatment plants, which results in massive quantities of waste being dumped into rivers. Untreated sewage from urban centers ends up polluting rivers and causes further health risks when it contaminates groundwater supplies.

One part of the SBA involves the cleaning up of rivers, which is intrinsically related to improving the sanitation crisis in India. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, under its Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Programme, has also been working on developing innovative technologies to tackle solid and septic waste management and sewage treatment in select cities (Pune, Warangal, Dungarpur and Trichy) in India.

In 2015, the government of India launched a program called the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation, aimed at creating proper sewage networks, septic management and water distribution for 500 cities across the country. The government also allocated funds to the states in order to make them equal partners in the planning and implementation of such projects under the State Annual Action Plans. States like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Odisha have already issued state-level septic management policies. In addition, the National Policy on Faecal Sludge and Septage Management by the Ministry of Urban Development in India aims to bring together the central government, states and local bodies to ensure proper implementation of onsite sanitation services and fecal sludge and septage management across urban India.

Rural India Looks to Eliminate Open Defecation

The obstacles to improving the sanitation problem in rural India include poverty, cultural prejudices, lack of awareness, and a shortage of running water, among others. Sixty-five percent of the rural population in India either practices open defecation or has inadequate access to toilet facilities. Cultural prejudice often hinders villagers from using toilets inside their homes, as toilets are considered unclean spaces that pollute the rest of the house.

In 2016, the state of Chhattisgarh saw an improvement in sanitation as the number of ODF villages increased from 20 in 2014 to 1,644 in 2016. However, despite improvements, India still falls behind countries like Vietnam, which are close to eradicating open defecation completely. Though a lot still needs to be accomplished, the Swachh Bharat Gramin (Rural) Mission has been working towards accelerating sanitation coverage and motivating communities to adopt proper sanitation practices through information and health education. It is estimated that since 2014, 394,462 villages have been rendered ODF.

In the same year, Narendra Modi recognized Kunwar Bai, a 105-year-old woman, as a mascot for the Clean India Campaign when she inspired her village and subsequently a district of 800,000 people to end open defecation by investing in building toilets.

The awareness programs under SBA have been making a huge impact on the infrastructure and behavioral practices of sanitation. Many businesses, nonprofit organizations and leading organizations such as the World Bank, the World Health Organization, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID, UNICEF and the United Nations have been supporting the Clean India Campaign and are contributing to solving the sanitation crisis in India. Though some large states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have shown slow progress, the SBA remains undaunted in its attempts to improve the quality of sanitation practices in the country.

– Jayendrina Singha Ray
Photo: Flickr


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