The optics of India’s sanitation story

In July 2010, the UN General Assembly adopted a groundbreaking resolution officially recognising sanitation (access to, and use of) as a human right. A basic clean toilet with a continuous supply of water and waste disposal is the right of every Indian. However, there are many communities in our country, especially in rural areas, that aren’t even aware of this right. One of the objectives of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is to create this awareness among the general population through offline initiatives at the grass root level.

The challenge though is that the focus of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has been the favourable optics of toilet construction all over the country. However, this alone does not solve our sanitation problem. The mission, though noble, falters in execution at multiple levels. Constructing toilets is just the first step. Very little attention has been paid to what happens after – education on the workings of the toilet, ongoing maintenance, an electrical connection to make them usable and safe at all times.

Many of these toilets have become unusable due to accumulated filth and poor plumbing that fails to provide clean water. States like UP and Bihar have always been notorious when it comes to open defecation. Though toilets have been built, the lack of solid waste management and water results in a preference for open fields. Lack of staff to maintain the toilets has left many toilets at the mercy of local goons who have either vandalised them or are using them as free storage places.

According to the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan website, over 96 million toilets have been constructed since 2014, but the question of their maintenance remains unanswered.

Critics of the mission suggest that the money spent to publicise the mission through television, outdoor advertising and social media would be better spent creating awareness at the grassroots level and putting machinery in place to ensure these constructed toilets are used. They feel strongly that states cannot be declared ODF only on the basis of toilet construction. It is the usage of these facilities that determines ODF and not construction.

In urban areas, the scenario though better is not rosy either. The toilets are for the most part unusable especially outside of major metros like Mumbai. The Ministry of Urban Development released a mobile application that locates the nearest public toilet. The app also allows users to rate the toilet on cleanliness and hygiene. Again, a good idea, but the execution is flimsy and limited.

Our sewage lines in urban centres are the silent victim of economic migration and poor planning. Waste generated is discharged untreated into open drains. Sewers that are connected to common drains either meet the local water body or stagnate in the low lying land, eventually polluting groundwater and degrading its quality. Moreover, build up of waste is extremely dangerous and one of the key reasons for rampant spread of disease. These are serious health hazards, especially in the monsoons, in a city like Mumbai.

Even toilets in posh areas like Marine Drive aren’t exempt. A recent article in the Times of India highlights this unfortunately stark reality. A toilet built by the BMC (Brihanmumbai Mahanagar Palika) the governing civic body of Mumbai, about seven months ago, is pretty much unusable half the week.

The solar-powered toilet facility toilet built to the tune of Rs 90 lakhs uses vacuum technology for 0.8 litres per flush. Built at great cost, this toilet has a critical flaw – it is not connected to the sewage system that is located across the road. Which means it has to be cleaned via suction every other day! The stench that emanates from this fancy loo has residents who use the promenade for their daily exercise up in arms. It sees an average of 1500 users every day, a number that doubles on weekends, but because it is shut on alternate days it pretty much defeats its purpose.

While civic officials are considering alternatives to connect the toilet to the sewerage line, each comes with its own set of problems.

This toilet pretty much ties into the larger Swachh Bharat story where sanitation decisions have been made keeping the optics in mind rather than actually solving the problem at hand. Rather than spend another exorbitant amount to install trenchless technology connecting the toilet to the sewerage system, as the BMC plans to, there is a cost-effective and simpler fix – microbe technology that degrades waste onsite. It is a proven method for digestion of human waste, odour elimination and removal of sludge build up in septic tanks. Beats spending another 20 lakhs or so connecting to the sewerage line, wouldn’t you say?

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse