Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), was a global initiative started in 2000 with the main objectives being the eradication of poverty and hunger, disease, and promotion education in rural India amongst others. A notable effort, the MDGs set the ball rolling and drove progress in key areas. A global movement was witnessed and substantial progress was achieved in the areas of access to water and sanitation, among others.
Thereafter, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by nations under the aegis of the UN with the objective of fast-tracking the achievements of the MDGs and putting up a framework for a set of universal goals to tackle environmental, and economic challenges facing the world.
All the 17 SDGs are integrated—that is, they recognize that action in one area will affect outcomes in others, and that development must balance social, economic, and environmental sustainability. The underlying commitment of the SDGs also looks to create a global commitment to permanently end poverty, albeit with the progress that is sustainable and safe.
Goal no 6 of the SDGs specifically recognised the need to “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”. It is an accepted fact that availability and access to water, sanitation, and hygiene are fundamental to preserving the health and well-being of millions. The idea was to maximise reach to those who were bereft of water since they lived in remote areas where water was scarce or polluted. This goal aimed to achieve universal and equitable access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all, end open defecation and eliminate dumping by expanding international cooperation and capacity-building support to developing countries.
Issues In Fixing India’s Wastewater Management And Sanitation
India is a large country and one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. However, its track record on basic sanitation leaves a lot to be desired. Open defecation is an endemic problem and people relieve themselves behind trees, by roadsides, and on railway tracks and river banks. A substantial part of the urban population also lacks decent toilet facilities. With untreated solid waste being dumped into freshwater rivers and lakes, the problem keeps multiplying and is leading to polluted water sources besides infection and disease. The reality is grim and there are several reasons that this could be attributed. Some of these are –
- Socio-Cultural Taboos – Many societies, particularly in rural India consider latrines at home to be religiously “impure. With the lack of sewage systems, pit cleaning adds to this thought, and cooking and eating under the same roof is considered taboo.
- Infrastructure – Even though substantial progress has been made in this area, the available space is a deterrent in constructing toilets. With family sizes ranging from 3 to 6 members on average, the paucity of open space is often a challenge.
- Water Supply – Despite the availability of toilets, there is a lack of water supply which encourages people to defecate in open areas in the vicinity of water sources. Scarce water also leads to water conservation and management for basic household needs and personal consumption.
- Hygiene – Due to the lack of availability and connectivity to sewage treatment systems, refuse pit cleaning becomes an additional chore. Add to this the fact that these turn into a spawning ground for mosquitoes and flies makes users wary of them due to reasons of hygiene.
Progress In Addressing Issues In India
The government of India realised that the changing landscape of India was leading to an insurmountable problem with respect to sanitation. With rampant consumerism and societal divide came increased waste generation leading to compromised sanitation practices. Huge landfills adorned the outskirts of urban India and the rural areas grappled with issues emanating from open defecation, lack of wastewater management, drainage system, and poor sanitation awareness.
The Government launched the Swachh Bharat Mission on 2nd October 2014 under which all villages, Gram Panchayats, Districts, States, and Union Territories in India declared themselves “open-defecation free” (ODF) by 2 October 2019.
About 100 million toilets were constructed in rural India and statistically, India has now achieved ODF status. The initiative has now moved on to the next phase i.e ODF-Plus to reinforce ODF practices and management of solid and liquid waste in villages.
To address sanitation issues in Rural India, The Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation (DDWS), Ministry of Jal Shakti, Government of India launched the 10-year Rural Sanitation Strategy (2019-2029). This initiative looks at achieving a situation where everyone uses a toilet and every village has access to solid and wastewater management. The contribution of development partners in this endeavour is also a focus area and their role is being recognised going forward.
The results are there to see. A report by the Joint Monitoring Programme on water, sanitation, and hygiene by the World Health Organization and UNICEF released on July 1, 2021, found that India achieved the largest drop in open defecation since 2015 in terms of absolute numbers.
National Sample Survey Office (NSSO)’s surveyed toilet coverage and use at the household level in the report ‘Drinking water, Sanitation, Hygiene, and Housing Condition’ and ‘Survey of Persons with Disabilities from July 2018 through December 2018. The ‘draft’ report, pegged toilet coverage in India at only 75 percent. Close to 80 percent of those were being used. The findings were divergent from the government’s claim of being ODF-free. The report found that households did not use toilets regularly despite building them. The major reason for this was the non-availability of water. Some say that the actual number of toilets built is inflated. The government gives a grant of Rs. 12000 to a household to construct a toilet. However, the construction was not verified and even if it was, toilets were not maintained and went into disrepair.
The government has to now look at overcoming the challenges of a) Getting people to the toilet and b) Safe disposal of the waste collected. With little or no water supply, the ODF programme is threatened at the ground level. The absence of sewerage systems particularly in the rural hinterland is only adding to the burden. Waste is dumped at pits or beside water bodies and the intended benefits have turned around.
Clearly, Sanitation in India is still a work in progress, and achieving finality is not going to be easy despite government claims.
The Way Forward
The adoption of Sanitation has to be a concerted effort by policymakers, implementing agencies, stakeholders, and partners in progress. Sanitation needs to be marketed to influence behaviour towards sanitation and cleanliness. A planned process that applies theories of attitudinal change is key to the success of the sanitation programme. Besides, the umbrella of the sanitation process needs to be completed with last-mile infrastructure like waste processing and availability of water, etc. Without these, the piecemeal efforts will all remain statistics on paper and will go waste. For this, the government agencies, private sector, AND agents of change (read NGOs and voluntary organizations) need to act in a coordinated and selfless manner. Only then will we come closer to the goal of minimising issues in rural development in India, wastewater management, and sanitation, and delivering a healthy environment to society.
Leading The Way
S M Sehgal Foundation (Sehgal Foundation), a rural development NGO in India, has been working selflessly since 1999 to improve the quality of life in rural communities in India. Established as a public, charitable trust, the S M Sehgal Foundation creates sustainable programs to address rural India’s most pressing needs. Sehgal Foundation has five main program areas – Water Management, Agricultural Development, Local Participation, and Sustainability, Transform Lives one school at a time, and Outreach for Development. The mission of the S M Sehgal Foundation is to strengthen community-led development initiatives to achieve positive social, economic, and environmental change across the country. The vision is to achieve sustainable rural development in India and empower the rural communities so that they could lead a more secure, prosperous, and dignified life.
The beneficiaries for assistance in household toilets are selected on the basis of their poverty and the absence of a toilet in their dwelling unit. As part of the project, financial assistance
Amounting to Rs. 20,000 was provided to the beneficiary family if they contributed Rs. 8,000. With this economic assistance, lower-income bracket families have been able to construct toilets. With this intervention, people do not have to walk far distances and women feel safe as they do not have to venture out. Villagers have become much more aware of overall cleanliness, and they participate in all activities pertaining to sanitation in their village.