Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan: The road ahead

Launched under personal guidance from the Prime Minister of India in 2014, Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan has been instrumental in changing the sanitation scenario in India. Once contributing to half of the world’s burden of open defecation, even worse than poorer nations like Rwanda, Kenya, Bangladesh and Pakistan, India is now officially open defecation free (ODF). The Swachh Bharat Mission – Gramin deserves a special mention here, since rural sanitation was a mammoth challenge to overcome, largely due to age-old practices in rural India. SBM-G has changed the sanitation habits of more than six hundred million people, who have started using toilets.

The impact of SBM-G is clearly evident – the World Health Organisation stated in 2018 that the programme will help in preventing more than 3,00,000 deaths between 2014 and 2019. A behaviour change programme more than anything else, SBM-G is saving lives, safeguarding dignity and helping families in Open Defecation Free (ODF) villages save a substantial amount of money spent on medical conditions like diarrhoea and malnutrition that arise due to open defecation. UNICEF also assessed that ODF villages have 11.25 times lesser chances of contamination of groundwater resources.

The aim of Swachh Bharat Mission – Urban was to not just eradicate open defecation in urban India, but also to scientifically manage municipal waste and eliminate manual scavenging completely. Cramped and densely populated cityscapes make waste management extremely difficult, and newer methods and products need to be devised for this purpose.

The goal of making India Open Defecation Free (ODF), which seemed insurmountable, has been achieved. It is a huge milestone, but there is more work needed to sustain the outcome of this mission. ODF-Sustainability is as big a challenge as, if not bigger than, making India ODF. The second leg of the mission needs to focus on better public health and municipal management at grassroots levels.

There are several waste management roadblocks in both rural and urban landscapes. Building toilets without sustainable waste management strategies eventually leads to the toilets becoming defunct. There are additional issues like unavailability of water, lack of awareness and infrastructural gaps. This leads to a reversion to open defecation. This opens a plethora of problems as well as the spread of disease. Open defecation and improper disposal of untreated human waste is also linked to eruption of disease epidemics.

In the urban landscape, improper septic tank maintenance in community toilets leads to sludge build up and foul odour emanation. Current strategies involve pumping out the accumulated sludge using vacuum suctioning trucks. However, given the cramped location of these toilets in cities, these trucks most often cannot physically access them. This leads to latrine abandonment. A lot of money needs to be pumped in to rebuild toilets, since construction is always cost-intensive. Moreover, effective usage of these toilets depends on the availability of water and appropriate design, issues which have not been addressed well in all regions.

In rural areas, septic tanks are often made without enough chambers or soak pits that leads to the untreated black water leaching into groundwater systems and contaminating it with disease causing bacteria. While the number of toilets being built is commendable, encouraging a change in behaviour and comprehensive planning at the time of construction is overlooked.

Swachh Bharat Mission’s intent was aligned with the global sustainable development agenda 2030, aimed at making equitable hygiene and sanitation accessible for all. Swachh Bharat, or Clean India, now needs to proceed towards Swasth Bharat, or Healthy India. The outcome of this programme and overall hygiene should lead to better health. Cases of malaria and diarrhoea in young children have already declined and a study by UNICEF also stated that soil, water and food contamination has reduced after SBM. While toilet construction has been carried out efficiently, solid waste management, the second component of the programme, has remained somewhat overlooked.

There needs to be a clarion call for sustainable in situ treatment and maintenance technologies that can address these issues. In situ water treatment or direct dosing water treatment is the direct mixing of reagents to the water body instead of treating the water by pumping through a treatment plant.

Of the 150,000 tonnes of municipal waste generated every day in India, less than 30% is treated. Waste management, wastewater treatment, fecal sludge management, etc. are supplementary components that need to be addressed effectively for sustaining the sanitation ecosystem. The sustainability narrative has some gaps which must be filled in so that optimum hygiene and health is achieved and SBM assets stay functional and are well maintained. Only then India can smoothly transition into ODF+ and eventually ODF++ status.

Organica Biotech has been unified with the Nation’s mission to achieve ODF++ status. Our fecal sludge management technology has been recongised and awarded by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Government of India. On the ground level, our work in Urban Sanitation has been vetted by TISS. We continue to partner with individuals, muncipalities, NGOs, corporates and Governments alike to ensure that technology reaches those who need it the most. Bioclean BD  is a tank treatment product that specially designed contains bacteria that can completely degrade fecal matter. The bacteria can thrive in harsh climate too, break down sludge and also minimise its build up, preventing future choke ups. It also eliminates foul odours and controls the prevalence of pathogens. Bioclean Biotoilets are sturdy, easy to install and do not require any maintenance either. Being resistant to chemicals and corrosion, they last long and are a much better option than cement toilets and pit latrines which get choked without proper biodigestors and pollute the groundwater as well.

The missing elements of ODF sustainability can negate the progress that has been achieved in the past few years with so much effort and investment. It is imperative to look for solutions that ensure that this project truly becomes an exemplary success for India.

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