In Surat’s turnaround in sanitation, a story of hope - Hindustan Times
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In Surat’s turnaround in sanitation, a story of hope

Feb 09, 2024 10:09 PM IST

By 2047, about half of India’s population will reside in urban areas. These areas need to be kept clean.

The ascendance of Surat as the cleanest city in India, announced last month, has multiple narratives. First, it makes the chaotic task of city sanitation an achievable goal for India’s 5,000 urban local bodies (ULBs). The cleanest city tag is no longer the exclusive preserve of Indore, which lifted the crown with predictable regularity soon after Swachh Survekshan was instituted by the ministry of housing and urban affairs (MoHUA) in 2016. The city of Ahilyabai Holkar with its six-bin segregation of waste remains a pole star but now has to share the top spot with Surat.

Outside view of the Surat Airport(Narendra Modi/X) PREMIUM
Outside view of the Surat Airport(Narendra Modi/X)

The ascendance of Surat as the cleanest city in India, announced last month, has multiple narratives. First, it makes the chaotic task of city sanitation an achievable goal for India’s 5,000 urban local bodies (ULBs). The cleanest city tag is no longer the exclusive preserve of Indore, which lifted the crown with predictable regularity soon after Swachh Survekshan was instituted by the ministry of housing and urban affairs (MoHUA) in 2016. The city of Ahilyabai Holkar with its six-bin segregation of waste remains a pole star but now has to share the top spot with Surat.

Two, it is vindication time for a city that saw the plague and resulting exodus just three decades ago; the epidemic was attributed, ironically, to the city’s garbage dumps. Surat has since shown resolute intention in sanitation practices and finished second in the past three years before catching up with Indore. The badge of the cleanest city in India will accentuate its already impressive growth as it did for Indore.

Three, its win indicates that the democratisation of sanitation is happening. Most cities and towns are now part of this annual survey compared to less than 75 at the start. Swachh Survekshan has established itself as among the largest and most credible surveys in the world, offering a red carpet annually on which every city and state wants to walk. Transparent parameters, robust third-party verification, and rigour of assessment have given it a character. The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) and MoHUA deserve credit for this.

Navi Mumbai follows Indore and Surat among large cities. The top three among smaller cities are Saswad and Lonavala from Maharashtra and Patan from Chhattisgarh. Maharashtra is ranked the best performing state followed by Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Varanasi and Prayagraj are the cleanest Ganga towns, reflecting the ongoing efforts for rejuvenating centres of pilgrimage and cultural heritage.

Awarding Chandigarh as the best Safaimitra Surakshit Shehar presents the human as well as technological side of new age sanitation — “transition from manhole to machine hole” to quote finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman. The aim is to see 100% mechanical desludging of septic tanks and sewers so that casualties from unsafe methods are eliminated. Over 2,000 cities are already in this mode.

Sanitation findings in the national Capital region have a predictable text including the downward slide of Gurugram. The Millennium City was in the headlines last year for garbage piles, strikes by sanitation workers, and source segregation not taking off even in elite residential areas. Contracts for waste remediation never saw a smooth run. The Bandhwari dumpsite stands as a monument of waste mismanagement despite the Green Tribunal’s constant monitoring. On the other hand, New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC), Noida and even Ghaziabad bettered their rank suggesting that large municipalities are upping their sanitation game. Within the national Capital, it is not surprising that NDMC has an all-India rank of seven as against the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD)’s 90. A walk through the areas serviced by the two agencies informs the difference. The rankings will hopefully trigger action, and not a blame game.

Wholesome city sanitation is yet to become a pan-India movement as improvements are largely concentrated around the western and central parts of the country. Cities and towns in the higher range are competing among themselves and moving up and down. During the proliferation of toilets in the first phase of SBM, certain districts and states were quick to meet targets whereas eastern and northern regions required more time and follow-ups. This also suggests that communities like to maintain their rank after reaching an aspirational state of cleanliness. Areas that have a solid safe sanitation status are better placed to take up solid and liquid waste management.

Core services such as waste segregation, recovery, and processing remain key measures of city sanitation and are given 50% weightage in the survey. Sustainability and usage are other determinants that make certification important. With community and public toilets in focus, MoHUA just concluded a month-long clean toilets challenge to identify the best models. Basic to the approach of SBM is that ordinary citizens have a part to play in the evaluation. More than 15 million people gave feedback; 4,000 trained evaluators went from ward to ward to improve the Survekshan.

From the disposal of waste, urban sanitation has now moved to converting waste to wealth, the theme of the 2023 survey. This sees urban waste as part of the circular economy and links it further with environmental sustainability and the global mission of Lifestyle for Environment (LiFE). Last year, SBM Urban piloted a meaningful community campaign — reduce, reuse and recycle. Appropriately, these 3Rs are the theme of the next Survekshan. The previous year’s budget provided for 500 new waste-to-wealth plants, several of which combine waste disposal with clean energy generation. With an outlay of 1,416,780 million for the second phase of SBM Urban, finances are no issue; delivery rests on local bodies.

By 2047, about half of India’s population will reside in urban areas. These areas need to be kept clean. Looking around, the goal of a garbage-free India by 2026 may appear challenging but it is not impossible, just as India could achieve saturation of its toilet programme at a dramatic speed. Swachh Survekshan will keep everyone alert. For now, India’s urban sanitation journey deserves to be celebrated.

Akshay Rout is a former director general, Swachh Bharat Mission. The views expressed are personal

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