IN WHAT appears to be a counter-intuitive outlier, Himachal Pradesh has proposed a sewage management action plan that contrasts models suggested by the central government and international consultancies. Despite a concerted four-year push from the Centre towards individual septic tank solutions, even in urban areas, the hill state plans to dig up even more ground to enlarge its piped underground networks, marking the complex tradeoffs of urban sewage decision making.
Himachal submitted its action plan earlier this month to the Central Monitoring Committee (CMC), which is overseeing compliance to a set of merged National Green Tribunal orders to make sewage 100 per cent treated by March 2021.
Over the past four years, states have been nudged towards Faecal Sludge and Septage Management (FSSM) — on-site, decentralised solutions such as septic tanks — following a major push from the Centre which came out with a FSSM policy in 2017. In July last year, a National Mission for Clean Ganga webinar was also held for “mainstreaming” FSSM.
While states such as Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have begun to lean towards FSSM in medium and small urban settings, others like Gujarat, West Bengal and Himachal have shown less inclination. Currently, the country has only 25 Faecal Sludge Treatment Plants (FSTPs), which treat sewage from septic tanks, but cities are building 400 more, according to a CMC report of September last year.
As the states begin to chart out their directions, Himachal is experiencing an acute level of urgency. In 2016, Shimla’s insufficiently treated sewage in the Ashwani Khud river system led to a Hepatitis E outbreak, which causes jaundice. The disease affected more than half of the total families in the city in three months. “There is huge urgency. They have seen the implication of not doing this well,” PwC urban infrastructure consultant Shivanshu Chauhan told The Indian Express.
Roughly 70 per cent of Himachal’s 57 cities are connected to underground pipes and, to connect the remaining, the state plans to build 23 more sewage treatment plants and convert septic tank services into networks, said Naveen Puri, Himachal’s Engineer-in-chief in Jal Shakti Abhiyan. The plans were confirmed by the Himachal Pollution Control Board.
When asked about the decision, AMRUT Joint Secretary D Thara said: “In a hilly state… FSTP is good enough to immediately deal with the problem. Septage is a good idea.” He said ultimately the decision is the state’s and the Centre plays a “supportive” role.
Along with Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation or AMRUT, after a declared-achievement of open-defecation free (ODF), government sources said decentralised sewage management in ODF++ will be of high priority in the next phase of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban. In the 2020 Swachh Survekshan ranking, an FSSM action plan gives an urban local body 40 marks and over 95 per cent on-site sanitation coverage gives 80 marks.
While Himachal may seem like an obvious site for significant decentralised sewage systems, engineers and bureaucrats in the state cited major difficulties in convincing private actors to traverse the hills for de-sludging septic tanks. “Along with the Centre, Niti Aayog also said carry sewage from septic tanks to the plant. But in Himachal, we studied it, it is not possible here,” Puri said.
Another chief engineer from the state, Susheel Justa, said mismanaged septic tanks have continuously leaked, contaminating the water table. “Now that India is developing, we need to change our status,” he said.
Abhinav Akhilesh, a KPMG executive who works in-house with the Urban Affairs Ministry, said: “Himachal is a bit of a unique case…. Given the gradient, getting these low-powered trucks to de-sludge when they are filled with two tons of waste is difficult.” However, underground is not a “panacea” either, he said, for the same gradient concerns will require more costly, pressurized sewer lines.
The government push for FSSM follows arguments from major international agencies, such as the Asian Development Bank and the Gates Foundation which provide significant funding for these projects, maintaining that centralised, large-scale sewarage systems are time-consuming, expensive, and environmentally-disruptive.
“A decentralized solution for sewage and fecal sludge management is therefore the only option for India to quickly increase the amount of treated water and raise the share of treated wastewater that is reused locally and productively (thereby reducing the amount of water extracted from the environment),” said a February 2020 publication of Asian Development Bank.