More than just a counting game

World Toilet Day:

November 19, 2017, was World Toilet Day, with the theme ‘Wastewater and Faecal Sludge Management’.  There is greater awareness about the importance of using toilets, largely due to the Swachh Bharat Mission launched in 2014, so much so that even Bollywood capitalised on this topic in the recent film Toilet — Ek Prem Katha , where a marriage is saved thanks to toilets. 

2015 Sustainable Development Goals

The sanitation story only begins with toilets, something clearly stated by the targets under the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals. These targets are not just about ‘toilets’ but also suggest improvements to the entire cycle of sanitation, which certainly begins with toilets but has to end with safe waste disposal.

Four stage cycle:

The full cycle of sanitation has four stages: access to toilets; safe containment; conveyance either through the sewerage network or de-sludging trucks, and treatment and disposal. 

Urban India faces considerable gaps:

  • Urban India faces considerable gaps along the full cycle of sanitation. One probable reason was the belief that sewerage and sewage treatment systems could be built in all cities.
  • Sewerage systems and sewage treatment plants (STPs) — a preferred system in most western countries — are not only expensive but are also complicated to maintain.

An alternative to sewerage systems:

  • An alternative to sewerage systems is something known as on-site systems. Septic tanks and pit latrines, which are prevalent in many Indian households, fall into this category.
  • If these systems are designed, constructed and managed properly, they can be perfectly safe options.
  • Safe containment, collection and treatment is known as septage management or faecal sludge management (FSM), and is being increasingly recognised by the Government of India as a viable option.

Multi-stage challenges:

  • Emerging evidence from across the country indicates that on-site systems are not constructed properly.
  • While the designs of ‘septic’ tanks and leach pits have been set out in standards issued in government documents, houseowners and masons are often not aware of these.
  • The most severe consequence of these poorly designed pits is the potential contamination of groundwater.
  • In addition, they are not de-sludged at regular intervals.
  • Faecal waste needs to be transported using de-sludging vehicles (and not manually) but only some States, Tamil Nadu for example, have these vehicles.
  • Once collected, the waste needs to treated properly to ensure that it does not land up in our lakes and rivers.
  • There aren’t enough treatment facilities to guarantee proper treatment of the sludge.

Recent Initiatives:

  • After the National Urban Sanitation Policy (NUSP) in 2008, a national policy on Faecal Sludge and Septage Management (FSSM) was released earlier this year.
  • Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Odisha have released State-wide septage management guidelines and taken concrete steps to execute these policies. 

The way Forward:

  • The waste needs to be handled safely at each of these stages in order to gain public health benefits.
  • Raising awareness about correct design and construction practices of on-site systems (new and legacy) will perhaps remain the biggest hurdle in the years to come.
  • But, urban local bodies and State governments could start by ensuring that the larger containment systems such as community toilets and public toilets are properly constructed and managed.
  • In addition, permission could be granted to new buildings, especially large apartment complexes only when the applicants show proper septage construction designs.
  • The safety of sanitary workers who clean tanks and pits must be ensured by enforcing occupational safety precautions and the use of personal protective equipment as set out in the law.
  • The last two suggestions are actions for us as citizens. As home-owners and residents, our tanks and pits must be emptied regularly, thereby preventing leaks and overflow.
  • We must ask our governments to invest in creating treatment facilities that our cities can afford.


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