As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, much can be said about the progress the country has made in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) concerning sanitation.
The concept of sanitation in the Indian context has been around since the Indus Valley civilisation. However, till 2014, sanitation coverage in India was as low as 39 per cent. Around 55 crore people in rural areas were without a toilet facility before 2014 and this severely affected the health and dignity of our people, especially women and children. The greatest and perhaps most significant impact of poor sanitation is on health. Exposure to contaminated drinking water and food with pathogen-laden human waste is a major cause of diarrhoea and can cause cholera, trachoma, intestinal worms, etc, leading to the “stunting” of huge swathes of our children. Poor hygiene and waste management practices also impact the environment with untreated sewage flowing directly into water bodies and affecting coastal and marine ecosystems, contaminating soil and air, and exposing millions to disease.
Finally, poor sanitary practices impact the economy adversely. A study by the World Bank states that the absence of toilets and conventional sanitation costs India 6.4 per cent of its GDP in 2006. The economic impact of poor sanitation for India is at least $38.5 billion every year under health, education, access time and tourism.
The launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) by the Prime Minister on October 2, 2014, had a unique goal — to achieve universal sanitation coverage and to make the country Open Defecation Free (ODF). By offering financial incentives for building household toilets, as well as community toilets for slums and migrant populations, the government gave a huge fillip to the toilet infrastructure. To bring changes to the age-old idea that toilets in the home were unclean, the government ran several programmes with the participation of the private sector and NGOs to educate the population on the benefits of ODF in what is acclaimed as one of the largest behaviour change programmes in the world. From 2014 to 2020, more than 10 crore toilets were constructed. The country declared itself ODF on October 2, 2019.
The second phase of the project, which commenced in 2020 and is expected to run till 2025, has set even more ambitious targets — sustaining the achievements of phase 1 and ensuring that treatment of both liquid and solid waste is achieved through the help of technology and private sector engagement.
The Lighthouse Initiative (LHI) commissioned by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation as part of the Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav is to be implemented through PPP, across villages in 75 gram panchayats in 15 states in Phase1. LHI is based on the principle of inclusive sanitation and leaving no one behind. LHI aims to effectively implement solid and liquid waste management structures by employing a participatory and consultative approach through mobilisation of the village communities, corporates, district and block administration and gram panchayat officers. Joint ownership and accountability between local governments, communities and corporates will ensure the success of the initiative.
Managing household and plastic waste as well as wastewater at a village level, defining and implementing solutions to convert waste to achieve a remunerative return not only creates hygienic surroundings for the communities but allows them to become economically self-sufficient in the medium to long term. Moreover, recovery of precious grey water through minimal treatment and treatment of sewage helps tackle scarce water resources, encouraging reuse and conserving water bodies.
The ability of corporates to team up with the village communities to convert their waste to wealth by utilising simple and cost-effective technologies that can be managed by them independently in the long run, as well as their ability to help build the capacity of the gram panchayats in understanding how to manage the various programmes are areas where PPPs can excel.
The India Sanitation Coalition (ISC) is a multi-stakeholder platform that creates meaningful collaborations. These stakeholders include the private sector, government, financial institutions, civil society groups, media, donors, etc. Today, ISC is recognised as the official intersection between the government and the private sector for engagement in helping build solid and liquid waste management infrastructure sustainably.
In choosing to partner with ISC on the LHI initiative and the early batch of corporates that have come forward such as ITC, Jindal Steel and Power, JSW, Nayara, HCL and foundations such as Ambuja Cement, Tata Trusts and Aga Khan Trust, the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation has recognised the benefits of working with the private sector. Understanding the on-ground need for solid and liquid waste management infrastructure, it has included activities such as the construction of soak pits, waste stabilisation ponds, drainage channels, compost pits, collection and segregations sheds and biogas plants as part of the Rs1,40,881 crore that will be provided over the next five years. The private sector will supplement this through CSR funding.
Going forward, the ISC will continue to focus on the government’s position with regard to the thematic interlinkages between WASH and sectors such as health, education, gender, nutrition and livelihoods. This will include urban and rural challenges and create viable programmes where government funding will be used primarily for infrastructure building and the private sector comes in as a strategic partner providing expertise in management and technology. These successful collaboration “ lighthouses” will be documented and disseminated to enable replication across the country, holding the promise of taking forward the remarkable success of the first phase of SBM.
The writer is Chair, India Sanitation Coalition