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Down the drainpipe

india Updated: Nov 11, 2011 22:01 IST

Hindustan Times
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A good way of gauging the intensity of migration from rural to urban India is to visit a railway station. No matter what the season is, there will be families waiting for the next train to a metro. Even though the life of a migrant is tough, the lack of economic opportunities in rural areas is pushing more and more people to the cities. The 2011 Census reveals that for the first time since Independence, the absolute increase in population is higher in urban areas than in the countryside. For our under-prepared cities, this unrelenting human wave puts enormous pressures on sanitation and water supply services. Since these migrants don't form a votebank, local bodies and politicians deny them services, sometimes even at the cost of the host city's environment and health.

According to a survey of 423 cities conducted in 2009 by Indicus Analytics, an economic research firm, no Indian city qualified as healthy and clean. Only four cities — Chandigarh, Mysore, Surat, New Delhi — were rated as 'recovering but still diseased' while 230 were rated as needing considerable improvement, and 189 fell in the lowest category requiring immediate remedial action. Government data shows that not only do more than 30 million urban households (35% of urban India) have inadequate access to sanitation facilities, but also more than 37% human excreta generated is not safely disposed of. Deaths and diseases due to water pollution and poor sanitation impact the poor very hard and often they are unable make economic progress due to recurring medical costs. A 2010 World Bank study on the economic impacts of inadequate sanitation in India showed that insufficient household access to sanitation, poor hygiene and the lack of safe disposal of faecal matter caused the country economic losses equivalent to 6.4% of the GDP, which amounted to $53.8 billion (Rs 2.4 trillion).

So how do we tackle this sanitation and hygiene challenge? First, let's not look at migrants as unwanted masses who need to be sent away. Instead, get them involved in designing, planning and executing sanitation projects. Mostly, projects fail because there are no appropriate investment, financing and cost recovery plans. Instead of making the sanitation facilities free, impose user charges but ensure that the services are provided properly within a timeframe. For example, the Hyderabad Metropolitan and Sewerage Board created a single-window clearance to receive process and to coordinate water and sewerage applications. Providing adequate sanitation is one of the Millennium Development Goals that we have to reach by 2015. But, unfortunately, as things stand now, it looks more than a difficult target.