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Identifying and resolving India’s sanitation issues with decentralised solutions

Humans on average defecate 140 kg of excreta each year and when multiplied with the 1.4 billion people residing in India, it becomes tough to equate access to toilets with access to sanitation

New Delhi |
January 5, 2022 9:40:48 pm
toiletA few Indian states have shown tremendous improvement in treating waste from on-site sanitation systems by implementing right policies, regulations, and infrastructure (Source: Express Photo by Praveen Khanna)

By Drishti Basi

As we trace the focus of the Swachh Bharat Mission since 2014, the significance of toilets, when it comes to the health and wellbeing of the community, has been paramount. While there has been a remarkable progress in the country with cities becoming open defecation-free (ODF), a much-neglected aspect is the aftermath of using a toilet.

Humans, on average, defecate 140 kg of excreta each year and when multiplied with the 1.4 billion people residing in India, it becomes tough to equate access to toilets with access to sanitation. Eighty per cent of this excrement finds its way to open ground or water bodies. We need to, therefore, broaden the conversation regarding complete sanitation, and acknowledge that safe containment and treatment of human excrement is equally important.

This is where faecal sludge and septage management (FSSM) becomes relevant. It is the practice of safe containment, emptying and transportation of faecal sludge (mixture of human excreta, water and solid wastes) and septage (refers to the partially digested faecal solids) to a treatment plant.

Let’s understand it step by step:

Onsite Sanitation System (OSS)

With only a third of the toilets in the country connected to a sewerage system, the alternate way to safely contain human and household liquid waste, is connecting that to underground containment systems (like septic tanks).


The containment systems need to be emptied periodically, with the help of a mechanised desludging truck which collects the waste from underground tanks.

Transportation and treatment

Desludging trucks transport this sludge and septage to a faecal sludge treatment plant (FSTP).


To complete the cyclic biological process, the by-products of treatment which include both water and bio-solids can be reused for agriculture purposes. The entire process of containment to treatment of faecal sludge and septage, along with creating an enabling environment for the system to run smoothly and sustainably is FSSM.

Identifying the need for managing human and household waste early on, Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India, prepared a national policy on FSSM in 2017. Furthermore, faecal sludge and septage management is integral to government’s strategy to achieve the ODF+ and ODF++ statuses, which address the holistic coverage of waste treatment, disposal, and reuse. It is also critical to acknowledge the need for FSSM from the perspective of its cascading effects on public health, climate, and water pollution. Unless safely contained and treated, the waste from toilets which are not connected to a sewage system, continue to pollute water bodies, contaminate underground resources, and add to the public health crisis. A few Indian states have shown tremendous improvement in treating waste from on-site sanitation systems by implementing right policies, regulations, and infrastructure. Warangal in Telangana is the first Indian city to implement FSSM regulations. This involved identifying existing problems and challenges with sanitation.

Post identification, training was carried out for stakeholders like masons on proper construction of septic tanks, and private desludging operators on emptying and use of PPE. Licenses were issued, desludging trucks were fitted with GPS for real-time tracking via an app. FSTPs were constructed at identified point in the city for quick conveyance of sludge. A helpline was also launched to enable citizens to access masons and desludging operators and to seek technical help or convey their grievances. Odisha too has been a frontrunner paving the path towards sustainable sanitation practices. The state has excelled in achieving 100 per cent faecal sludge management with the help of a strong political will.

Starting with two towns, Dhenkanal and Angul, faecal sludge and septage management in Odisha started in the year 2015 through project Nirmal. By 2020, the state had achieved 100 per cent treatment of blackwater. Furthermore, the government realised that more than 30 per cent of the urban areas have narrow inaccessible lanes — a hindrance to large desludging vehicles. To, therefore, extend mechanised desludging services, the government has been actively procuring mini cesspool emptier vehicles with a capacity of 1000 litres.

Following these successful FSSM implementations many other cities and states across the country are also executing innovative financing models, using technology, and working with women and transgender communities to ensure that inclusive and safe sanitation is realised at the grassroots. The process of delivering safe and sustainable services across the sanitation value chain is, therefore, made successful through multi-stakeholder collaborations across urban local bodies, state government, citizens, private sector players and sanitation workers, supported by the right set of governance frameworks, technology and training.

The National Faecal Sludge and Septage Management Alliance (NFSSM Alliance) is one such collaborative body which focuses on creating impact through policy recommendations and supporting the government at a national and state level enabling effective FSSM service delivery to last-mile communities. Sixty per cent of India’s urban population today, depends on OSS, which requires dedicated planning for FSSM – a model which can easily be implemented, scaled up and replicated across the country with adaptations as per local needs. Complementing the centralised sewerage networks, FSSM is a convenient, adaptable, and cheaper method which can enable us to achieve 100 per cent sanitation sooner.

The author is associate, Urban Sanitation, Dasra 

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