Brazil’s sanitation wins, and what India can learn from them

In 2014, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi announced the launch of the Swacchh Bharat Mission, one of the country’s most widely publicised missions to better sanitation and public health. Its goals include eliminating open defecation entirely, eradicating manual scavenging, employing modern and scientific methods of solid waste management, widen the reach and effectiveness of awareness building activities, amongst other things.

Ever since, right through the prime minister’s term, this initiative has received a massive wave of attention across the board – captivating minds in media, policy-making as well as society – with a range of opinions on what it has gotten right, where it has fallen short and what has been the sum total of achievement.

According to a 2014 WHO-UNICEF report, India constitutes only 11% of the world’s urban population but contributes 52% to open defecation in the world’s urban spaces. Given the country’s exploding population, sanitation, the issue of open defecation especially, along with waste management and public health has been high up on the list of change priorities for quite some time. Following the launch of the Swacchh Bharat Mission, this sector was pumped with massive funding. While some reports study how the mission may have suffered due to erroneous funds management and execution, the WHO, in 2018, praised India’s accelerated focus on providing safe sanitation services with a goal of 100% coverage. If achieved by October 2019, this could mean a cumulative prevention of 300,000 potential deaths caused by diarrhoea-related diseases and protein-energy malnutrition (PEM).

Earlier in 2017, India participated in the WHO’s Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water Survey (a tool to provide policymakers actionable data to help inform sound policy). Post this, the WHO worked closely with the Government of India to bolster the efforts to scale up sanitation services, by providing technical assistance and help to partners in implementing WHO’s guidelines for safe water and sanitation planning. While these efforts have brought us a long way from where we once were, there is still great scope for further development.

Another country that has a similar growth trajectory as India, in terms of not just industrialisation and population, but also rapid urbanisation and the pressing need to diversify and implement quick solutions for so many civic issues is Brazil. Despite the similarities in numbers and economics, Brazil has managed to crack the urban sanitation demon to a large extent, providing workable solutions for its society. An India Water Portal policy titled ‘Urban sanitation in India – Why Brazil matters’, by the Centre for Policy Research studies why India must look Brazil-wards with respect to managing and implementing policies in sanitation. It explores the many models of financing and provisioning of service that Brazil has experimented with before hitting upon the winning combination of policies. In Brazil, India has a solid success story to emulate, in order to find the right balance as they have, between levels of centralisation and decentralisation, as well as public and private provisioning. Studying their success could be a good way to begin to look at understanding the gaps closer home, within our sanitation policies and implementation.

Why does Brazil’s approach matter?
Brazil adopted a strong focus on being a pluralistic state, early on. It has already been on the path to significant economic reforms for about 30 years now. This is very similar to India’s own growth story. There are such similarities to be seen in the rise of Brazil’s industries as well as political growth arc. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, much like in India, the unprecedented economic boom that was experienced has also brought on rapid urbanisation, explosion in population, unmitigated and unplanned rural-urban migration that the state was simply unprepared for.

Brazil’s urban population grew from 45% in 1960 to over 80% by the millennium, and today stands at 172 million. This boom is evident in the visible existence of favelas – Brazilian shanty towns – that are quite similar to the widespread growth in India’s temporary slums that have and continue to erupt all across the country’s growing urban areas. These temporary establishments comprise mainly makeshift housing-scapes, with minimal or no utilities such as water, electricity, sanitation and security. But that is where the similarities end. Because Brazil has a leg up on India, in how it has managed to provide a manageable and basic sanitation system for citizens in these housing areas, despite many of the same challenges and limitations.

Key areas of Brazil’s success
In the paper referenced above, the authors rightly argue that India’s most significant shortfall is the widening gap between hype and some of it actually translating into the development of policies and implementable solutions that can address the long-term needs of the sanitation challenge.

One of the biggest wins for Brazil, and one that India would do well to learn from rather than reinvent the wheel is in how they were able to bring in an entirely fresh, rethought approach, rather than re-jig a tired and already failing one. In continually improving and transforming the policies and the approach, they have been able to bring in needle-pushing, radical change.

  • First and foremost, Brazil was able to recognise their citizens constitutional and legislative right to urban spaces and basic urban services and civic amenities. Sanitation fundamentally falls under this and cannot be ignored.
  • Brazilian policy is hugely influenced by Keynesian ideas that emphasise the social functions of urban property. In the 2001 City Statute, it was categorically stated that “the social function of land supersedes its economic function, i.e. land use is prioritised over its commercial value.”
  • The National System on Sanitation Information (SNIS) was established in 1995 with the express intention of institutionalising the function of monitoring W&S services. The body collects data from across the country, pertaining to the implementation and efficacy of fund allocation. An eye on the results has ensured better planning, resource allocation, evaluation in the long run.
  • Despite several diverse changes in the political scenario over the last five decades, Brazil’s focus has always been to implement policy changes in the area of sanitation and it has always been driven by empirical data.
  • A steady focus on adequate, regular and public funding has buoyed sanitation policy in Brazil.
  • Brazil’s success in cracking the sanitation challenge lies largely in how quickly and smartly they have taken to adopting technology and scientific assistance that builds around the existing context of the favelas – both spatially and socially.

Despite this immense success story, the paper also enumerates the challenges faced by Brazil – primarily in ensuring continual regulation, accountability and ensuring transparency among implementing ministries.

What can India learn?
The Brazil story makes a good case study for India to learn from. It shows the glaring need for public involvement and funding, stringent regulation of the sector to ensure higher accountability, data collection for measuring efficacy, and building a system that keeps the social and spatial context of India’s growing urban landscapes at the heart of it. One size clearly does not fit all, so the answer may very well like in implementing bioremediation technologies, bio-toilets, and biotech-run water treatment facilities.

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