The swachhta journey: New targets, new approaches

Swachh Bharat Mission focused on access to sanitation and therefore construction of toilets. The new targets cover the entire sanitation value chain and focus on complete waste treatment and safe disposal

Written by Dhiraj Santdasani

In efforts towards realising the 6th SDG focused on clean water and sanitation, India has unwaveringly implemented strategies to achieve universal access to safe sanitation like never before. The government’s flagship sanitation scheme — the Swachh Bharat Mission — has become the world’s biggest sanitation drive and enabled India to achieve its target of eliminating open defecation. The toilet coverage in urban India has increased sharply with more than seven million toilets constructed within a record six years.

While the achievement of ODF status was an important stepping stone in the journey, India is now leapfrogging to achieve ODF+ and ODF++ status, which are the next set of targets designed to address the country’s safe sanitation management conundrum. The movement to attain ODF status under SBM primarily focused on access to sanitation and therefore construction of toilets. Whereas, these new targets cover the entire sanitation value chain and focus on complete waste treatment and safe disposal.

The government has announced the Urban SBM 2.0 in the Budget 2021-22. With a total financial allocation of over Rs 1.4 lakh crore, the mission will be an exemplar for the world, and especially for South Asian countries working towards safely managed sanitation facilities. The government aims to make all urban local bodies across the country ODF+ and ODF++ certified by 2024-25. To accomplish this, we must leverage the exceptional momentum achieved under the SBM’s first phase and give explicit focus to scientific treatment of toilet waste (Faecal sludge).

Considering the importance of complete wastewater treatment, the AMRUT scheme of the central government has been driving the rapid establishment of urban wastewater infrastructure in the country, including the laying of the sewer network. The legacy of sluggish growth in this sector has been effectively broken with SBM being the inflection point. However, as sewer projects are cost and time-intensive, the pace of laying the sewer network could not be in tandem with such a rapid increase in toilet coverage as observed under SBM 1.0. As a result, today, about 60 per cent of toilets in urban areas are attached to non-sewered systems, also known as on-site sanitation systems (OSS). Unlike toilets attached to sewer systems that transport wastewater from households to treatment plants, OSS systems require periodic mechanical emptying and transportation of toilet waste collected in the on-site containment units (septic tanks) attached to toilets. While establishing appropriate sewer networks in cities remains the long-term goal of the government, dedicated strategies for Faecal Sludge and Septage Management (FSSM) are crucial at this juncture.

Even though on-site sanitation systems have been prevalent in India since Independence, the urban sanitation sector never received such dedicated attention as it got after the launch of strategic National FSSM guidelines in 2017. Before SBM, many cities either dumped the faecal sludge at an open ground in the city’s outskirts or into the nearest water body/drain, leading to pollution of natural resources. With the government’s active efforts in the sector and advocacy around the safe sanitation objectives, the situation has improved multifold. About 950 cities have optimally addressed the concerns of faecal waste management and are already certified as ODF++ cities.

Since the deployment of the National FSSM Policy 2017, many states have showcased exemplary models of FSSM planning at the city level. The need for developing robust business models, promoting private sector participation, leveraging latest technological advancements, and bringing extensive mechanisation in operations of the FSSM sector is well understood. States have leveraged funding from multiple sources, including SBM, AMRUT and the 14th Finance Commission, and have also introduced various policies, legislative frameworks, and guidelines. Non-budgetary sources, including CSR funds and funds from philanthropic organisations, have also provided a significant push in this sector’s development.

India’s first standalone Faecal Sludge Treatment Plant (FSTP) was constructed in 2015 at Devanahalli, a municipality in Karnataka. Since then, many states have institutionalised FSSM and realised significant achievements in this domain. The government of Uttar Pradesh in partnership with National Mission for Clean Ganga has established an FSTP at Chunar town to protect the river Ganga from faecal contamination. The states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have worked on the Hybrid Annuity Model (HAM) of Public-Private Partnership (PPP) for implementing cluster-based FSSM projects covering more than 100 ULBs cumulatively. In 2018, Maharashtra became the first state in the country to implement a schedule desludging based septic tank emptying service through a Performance-Linked Annuity Model (PLAM) in partnership with the private sector. Self Help Groups (SHGs) in Odisha played a crucial role in successful operations of FSSM projects. The model emerged as a well planned inclusive sanitation programme fostering women empowerment in the field of sanitation.

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The government’s multidimensional policy approach and massive push in this sector have led to emergence of innovative and disruptive technologies in the last few years. Bandikoot, a robotic device, has been developed that cleans sewage from manholes and thus enables safe working conditions for sanitation workers. The vacuum trucks transporting faecal waste are now monitored on a realtime basis through GPS systems to ensure safe disposal.

FSSM initiatives also bring several positive externalities. In alignment with the circular economy concepts, FSSM provides an opportunity to recycle wastewater and faecal sludge. While recycled water can be utilised for local landscaping applications, treated sludge is a nutrient-rich material and can be used as manure or soil conditioner for agricultural fields. This area has emerged as a sunrise sector, with India producing increasing amounts of manure from composting of solid and faecal sludge waste.

To ensure that efforts towards sanitation in an ever-expanding urban India are guided appropriately, NITI Aayog also released a knowledge product on FSSM Service and business models. The book is a repository of 27 best practices witnessed across the country, covering implementation models for every component of the sanitation service chain and providing lessons for ULBs nationwide. With the launch of Urban SBM 2.0, India is set to attain the ODF++ status by having “safely managed sanitation systems” across the country. And this would truly be a watershed moment for urban sanitation in India.

The writer is part of the Managing Urbanisation Team, NITI Aayog. Views are personal

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