Swachh Bharat Mission to achieve SDG Goal 6.2 in India: Reflections from the Water and Health Conference, 2017

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In September 2017, as part of a research consultancy for the CLTS Knowledge Hub at the Institute of Development Studies, I travelled across India with the aim to study the adoption of septic tanks in rural India. The findings were fascinating and daunting at the same time. Quality of toilet technologies and faecal sludge management were found to be neglected areas across the states in India. Therefore, it was natural for me to develop an interest in the discussion of Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) at the Water and Health Conference held at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill from 16-20 October 2017. 

India had 550 million people open defecating in 2014. The newly elected government then decided to launch the Swachh Bharat Mission, aiming at universal sanitation coverage and better solid waste management in the country by 2019. Swachh Bharat Mission has two sub missions- SBM-urban and SBM-rural.

SBM was the focus of one of the plenary sessions at the Water and Health conference 2017, where the Secretary to the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDWS) talked about the sharp decline in open defecation in India due to construction of toilets. Researchers and practitioners also made presentations about Swachh Bharat Mission in the proceedings. CEPT University, Gujarat covered the status of SBM-urban focusing on Maharashtra. Both the plenary and the session by CEPT University provided a very positive view of the Swachh Bharat Mission with a focus on the political will of government. Other studies added to this perspective. One of the presentations which looked at the progress of sanitation in the world using a Sanitation Progress Index (SPI) showed that India has moved from ‘moderate progress’ in meeting sanitation goals in 1990 to ‘Good progress’ in 2015.

By the end of the conference, I felt that the narratives built around Swachh Bharat Mission were one sided with a focus only on the political will, and massive expansion of infrastructure.  Important issues like the quality of the constructed toilets, faecal sludge management (FSM), and inequality received poor attention. Therefore, let’s look at the other side of the coin. 
The Joint Monitoring Programme for water supply and sanitation by WHO and UNICEF specifies that the top rung of the sanitation ladder should involve safely managed toilets. Are the toilets built in India safely managed toilets? A presentation on appropriate toilet technologies in India showed that though twin pit latrines predominated in rural areas, there is an increase in the construction of faulty substructures. My study reveals that septic tanks constructed by the households often lack soak pits to absorb the effluents from the tanks or are not cemented at the bottom. Single pit latrines are found predominantly in the Sceduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe households. In this context, it is important to ask how far SBM is concerned with the quality of the toilet technologies.  It is true that twin pit latrines are given a priority under SBM. However, people's choice differs, and there are variations in preferences for different sanitation technologies across states.

Some states prefer septic tanks over other technologies and therefore faecal sludge management becomes a major concern. Recently government brought out guidelines for faecal sludge management in urban areas. The guidelines for FSM stipulate that the Faecal Sludge (FS) should be removed every two to three years. However, in India, the FS removal is not very regular, and the owners of onsite septic systems are seldom aware of any directions regarding FSM.  As a solution, to the issue, the CEPT University recommended that the government make FSM a three year regular interval municipal service. However, they failed to mention which technologies or what methods can be used to treat the faecal sludge.  That means that the municipal governments which are already overburdened with responsibilities have one more responsibility without having the knowledge and infrastructure for the treatment of the liquid waste. The CEPT study showed that FS is currently dumped in the open. A FS service by government without adequate infrastructure may lead to similar open dumping activities. The technologies for onsite treatment of faecal sludge demonstrated by development partners at the conference were too expensive and complex to be replicated at scale in India.

Similarly, speakers in the conference highlighted issues of inequality in sanitation. Whilst the Secretary of MDWS acknowledged that the question of inequality is important, there was no discussion on the types of inequalities that prevail in India and its perpetuation under SBM. Who are the people who defecate in the open? What social and economic conditions force them to defecate in the open? When coercive and shaming methods are used to implement SBM who are the people that are most affected? Does the shaming activity across the country perpetuate the caste issues inherent in Indian society? If social justice and sanitation are to be addressed effectively in India, these are questions that require attention. 

History has shown us how narratives are built to serve interests of those who are in power. It is the responsibility of the scholarly community, therefore, to look at the narratives critically rather than blindly buying them. The Indian government’s effort to create a clean India is commendable. However, more critical reflection is required to make Swachh Bharat into an effective people friendly programme.

Prathibha Ganesan is Assistant Professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai

Date: 29 October 2017