To combat open defecation, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan must aim for being sustainably built on increased oversight, research and access to resources
A recent interaction with many people residing in a rural area with access to subsidised toilets revealed that many still practise open defecation, though PM Modi, through Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA), made assurances to make India open defecation free (ODF) by building tens of millions of toilets for the poor. It is true that many millions of toilets have been built using public money, mainly in rural areas of the country. The current SBA has addressed sanitation with unprecedented political support and scale. As assumed, lack of access to suitable sanitation facilities is also a major cause of risks and anxiety, especially for women and girls in many rural areas. Also, sanitation that prevents disease and ensures privacy and dignity has been recognised as a basic human right. But as opined by many rural people, the existing sanitation facilities are not optimally used in many villages on account of the paucity of water and poor construction of toilets due to financial constraint and difficulties in emptying of filled-in pits, which have lead to many people reverting to open defecation (OD) mostly in rural areas of low-income families. During heavy rainfall, overflow of excreta from these pits is also a cause of creating a breeding ground for mosquitoes and offensive smell. In addition, as observed during the inspection, leaching of contaminants from the pit-latrine excreta to groundwater cannot be ruled out, particularly during the rainy season as no investigation has been made to understand risks posed to groundwater by pit latrine based sanitation policies typically implemented. Many household open wells, once important sources of drinking water, have become dead and place of dumping the waste as people are expecting contamination from these excreta pits. The improved sanitation is defined as the access to facilities that hygienically separate the faeces from human contacts, including flush or pour-flush to a piped sewer system, septic tank or pit latrine, ventilated improved pit latrines, pit latrines with a slab and composting toilets.
In some cultures, women demand abundant water supply for cleansing after defecation, so its absence has forced the people to openly defecate near surface water bodies such as ponds and rivulets. Practically all these toilets are used only in the case of an emergency, during the night time or by patients. To overcome these barriers, they generally use the 'cat method'. This involves making a small hole for defecation and covering the excreta with sand/soil afterwards. Piped water to the household can incentivise the use of toilets if the system is technically feasible, affordable and contributes to health improvements and environmental protection but year-round availability of water cannot be ensured. Access to an adequate water supply is a vital part of ensuring a safe sanitation service chain for operation, maintenance and cleaning of facilities.
Despite progress in providing so many toilets to poor villagers, it is quite uncertain whether the acclaimed SBA goal to eradicate OD will be met and whether the officially recorded new toilets will actually be used sustainably. Sustainability with respect to sanitation implies that the system needs to comprise of waste containment (toilets), emptying (of pits and septic tanks), transportation (to sewage treatment facilities), waste treatment, and disposal/reuse. Caste issues also remain a significant barrier relating to the reuse of excreta after emptying filled-in pits, such as religious practices.
Toilet revolution requires an understanding of all these issues to ensure sustainability. In the backdrop of all the progress made so far, important knowledge gaps still remain in identifying the specific barriers towards ODF and no specific policy has been framed for behavioural changes of the users. Despite growing awareness of persistent gaps in sanitation access and the associated implications for society, progress to ensure access and use of safe sanitation has lagged compared to other development challenges, particularly in rural areas.
Earlier, the material unaffordability of toilets was the primary barrier, largely attributable to structural constraints such as poverty and socioeconomic inequality. The provision of subsidised toilets was the first step with the expectation that the health and other benefits of toilets will be realised after gaining access. Now, the SBA is facing challenges of insufficient funding and policy support to improved sanitation system and reuse of nutrients in human waste for agricultural production, weak sanitary awareness and low acceptance of new toilets, lack of innovative technical input and service system.
Present sanitation system still needs to overcome some critical barriers, at least for safe disposal of human excreta to an aquatic environment. In this context, OD as practised by 90 per cent of people, particularly in rural areas, may be encouraged by adopting the 'cat method' in the abundant agriculture fields in rural areas. OD may help not only to reduce water consumption but also to improve the soil condition of the agricultural fields following ecological principles. This practice may be a better alternative to existing sanitation system till Resource-Oriented Sanitation (ROS) system or Ecological sanitation (ecosan) system with the assurance of sustainability being implemented with the provision of requisite water supply to every household. This system will be the best way to meet sanitation needs and to contribute to food security by recovering nutrients and organic matter found in excreta for safe agricultural reuse, particularly in areas with declining soil fertility on account of continuous use of chemical fertilisers. Filled up pits and tanks of the sanitary toilets can directly be emptied out onto the vegetable crops. The promotion of sanitary facilities with access to undiluted and source-separated urine and faeces would be more useful for agronomic utilisation as it is being already practised in Amader Haspatal in Bankura, West Bengal. Proper training on the reuse of materials is an emergent need to maximise use in agriculture and to minimise health risks while handling the waste.
In addition, an improved sanitation facility needs to identify research gaps that include strategies for persuading governments and NGOs to prioritise, encourage and monitor sanitation. They should also be engaged in securing correct, consistent, sustained use of the facilities and estimating health impacts from sanitation interventions. Their research must also be aimed at improving methods for assessing the presence of sanitation-related pathogens in the environment and preventing the discharge of faecal pathogens into the environment. They must explore alternative designs and services, including safe emptying and management of on-site sanitation and ensuring culturally-appropriate sanitation interventions, alongside mitigating occupational exposures. Finally, they must investigate the issues that link access to sanitation and gender.
The writer is a former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board. Views expressed are strictly personal