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Cities need a policy on sanitation

As India aspires for global superpower status, the progress of its cities and villages is languishing in open garbage dumps, untreated sewage, clogged drains, and in the households of 700 million with inadequate or no access to sanitation, report Preeti Singh Saksena and Cooshalle Samuel. From drains to fine dining

india Updated: Dec 11, 2006 03:32 IST
Preeti Singh Saksena and Cooshalle Samuel
Preeti Singh Saksena and Cooshalle Samuel

As India aspires for global superpower status, the progress of its cities and villages is languishing in open garbage dumps, untreated sewage, clogged drains, and in the households of 700 million with inadequate or no access to sanitation. Precious resources are being wasted on tackling preventable diseases, bringing years of national apathy into our sanitised drawing rooms.

Consider the outbreak of leptospirosis in Surat earlier this year, caused by the presence of dead animals in floodwater; a chikungunya outbreak that affected lakhs across India, caused by mosquitoes breeding in stagnant rainwater; and Delhi’s recent brush with the deadly dengue.

According to Profiling "Informal City" of Delhi – a 2005 Water Aid study, 3300 million litres of mostly untreated sewage flows into the Yamuna each day. Of the total wastewater generated in the four metros, barely 30 per cent is treated before disposal. According to a 1996 NCAER report, of the 300 urban centres that had sewerage systems, treatment facilities were available in only 70 cities. Even where these are currently present, they often operate on obsolete technology, and are usually overstretched or mismanaged.

This untreated or partially treated wastewater eventually seeps into our rivers, lakes, and groundwater, leading to increasing incidence of disease. This is why the mere “taps and toilets” approach is no longer sufficient. Sporadic provision of sanitation infrastructure and upgradation needs to be replaced by sustainable service delivery, as part of a larger challenge of changing attitudes towards personal hygiene, civic responsibility and proper usage of services.

More than two thirds of toilets in urban areas either empty into open drains or are not connected to any. More than one third of the urban population relies on traditional disposal channels like septic tanks, most of which go un-checked for years together.

Public toilets now dot our cityscapes, but they are rarely used, and are often missing where they are needed most, with more than three fourths of Indian slums without any access to sanitation. This gap in demand and supply is the crux of the challenge of urban sanitation, compounded by an absence of service delivery and lack of awareness. Good sanitation needs to encompass personal hygiene, safe excreta and wastewater disposal, solid waste management, disease control and drainage.

India has no urban sanitation policy. In lieu of this, central and state governments have relied on urban local bodies, and sometimes NGOs, to address the challenges of sanitation in our cities and towns, without providing them with even a credible blueprint. A 2005 World Bank report says that "a chronic lack of urban sanitation policy and planning activity has made a major contribution to lack of progress in the sector."

Successful precedents exist, like the Mumbai Slum Sanitation Programme, based on a collaborative framework between NGOs, community-based organisations and private contractors, operationalised through community mobilisation and household contributions. But even sporadic local successes like this and national ones like Sulabh Shauchalayas have not been built upon.

The success of these approaches underscores the need for good service delivery, to address common factors that discourage public toilet usage in cities. These include lack of privacy and insecurity, made worse by inadequate lighting, poor accessibility and unhygienic conditions, owing to patchy water and electricity supply. According to the World Bank, most Indian cities get less than 3 hours of water supply per day, one of the lowest in developing countries, and only one per cent of Delhi’s population is connected to 24/7 water supply. Thus it is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain water intensive toilet technologies.

Above all, there is a growing need to create awareness on the proper usage of sanitation facilities, just as it is important to alert people on the fallout of bad sanitation. The successes of demand driven programmes like in Mumbai shows that more and more communities are willing to pay for, and participate in the provision of basic sanitation. As the next story shows, our villages are gradually changing with the government’s Total Sanitation Campaign. It is time now to clean up our fast expanding cities with shrinking (and stinking!) public spaces.

Why act?

A single gram of faeces contains 10 million viruses, one million bacteria, a thousand parasite cysts and a hundred eggs of worms. Direct or indirect exposure to these causes deadly diseases like diarrhoea, typhoid and cholera.

Children under the age of 5 years die due to lack of safe water and sanitation every year.

World wide 443 million school days are lost to water related illness.

The 2006 UNDP HDI Report estimates that it will cost about $ 10 billion a year to achieve MDG goals on access to water and sanitation.

In India, water related problems result in around 4.5 lakh diarrhoeal deaths annually- more than in any other country.

5 of the 10 top killer diseases of children aged 1-14 in India’s rural areas are related to water and sanitation.

The Total Sanitation Campaign being implemented in 559 districts is costing the country US$ 1.39 billion.

The average time currently spent defecating in the open is about 1-1.5 hours per day. This translates into a loss of Rs 9 per household per day.

3.9 %of the total global deaths in 2001 were attributed to water, sanitation and hygiene related ill health.

Sources: UNDP, WHO, UNICEF, WaterAid, World BANK, SACOSAN

First Published: Dec 11, 2006 00:47 IST