Re- Engineering Sanitation in India

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It feels wonderful to be a sanitation practitioner and expert, living in a time and in a country where sanitation is almost on the verge of becoming a national obsession in both policy talks and programme implementation. This has been triggered by the launching of Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) from the ramparts of Red Fort by Honourable Prime Minister of India Sri Narendra Modi.

SBM, the newest version in the not so long history of sanitation programmes in India, encompassed urban areas in its mission, increased the sanitation financing and linked open defecation free concepts on behaviour change with an unprecedented construction drive of individual household sanitation facilities across the country.

However, in spite of this much needed and renewed obsession with sanitation, there is hardly any paradigm shift or conscious efforts to re- engineer the sanitation programme in rural and urban India against the backdrop of our centuries old track record of dodging the issue. My thought on the main pillars of this process of re- engineering sanitation in India are based in breaking some key myths related to the sanitation programme in India. These are outlined below.

Myth # 1 – the cost of a sustainable household Toilet is Rs. 12000 as per incentive offered under SBM (Rural) 

Perhaps this is the biggest myth among implementing organizations for both states and people. SBM offers an incentive for household toilet construction not a subsidy-. The results of this myth have been devastating to the sanitation sector. Consider this. Many implementing organizations in states and therefore people in rural areas have this notion that they have to construct a toilet in 12000 odd rupees received by government – means they trust that Rs. 12000 is the cost of a sustainable toilet in their household across a diverse and vast country like India.

Even a novice civil engineer will tell you that the cost of a sustainable household toilet will vary from place to place and will require some greater co-financing by the household as per their aspiration level, choice of material for construction and technology (e.g. Septic tank, twin pits, bio toilets etc.) and add on features such as storage tank, hand washing facilities etc. Therefore, it is important to take the message to the implementers of SBM and people that adherence to technical design and drawings of different kinds of sanitation systems for toilet construction and co- financing   is key to sustainable sanitation, no matter what it costs. Based on their affordability and preferences, the household can choose a toilet design based on available on-site or off- site technologies in the area.

Year after year , there is increasing demands from state governments to the central government to increase the subsidy ( oops .. incentive) from Rs.12000 to up to Rs.25000 based on the understanding of state governments of what it costs to construct an household toilet ( latrine cum bathroom with hand washing facilities ). Obviously, state government’s want 100% of the cost of Individual household toilets to be subsidized.  But there is a catch here. Catch number 1 is that the sense of ownership of a toilet which is completely constructed using government’s incentive is less therefore it is more unlikely to be used by all family members. Catch number 2 is the Community led Total Sanitation Approaches (CLTS) which triggers people’s action to become opendefecation free communities and has been widely used by developmental agencies in India for promotion of SBM. Prompting complete financial dependency for the construction of household toilets on government agencies (100% subsidy for cost of toilet approach) dismantles the very basic premise of CLTS- that people and communities can take charge to go for open defecation free using appropriate sanitation options ensuring sustained behaviour change based on community pressure. As a result, what we see of CLTS in India is a tool for Information, Education and Communication (IEC) rather than a tool for triggering community action in many cases.

Myth # 2 – The cost of sustainable sanitation is high and therefore this is a low priority among rural and urban poor.

Nothing can be as far from the truth as this notion. But this premise suits everyone and therefore it prevails as a deep rooted myth. So much so that even the poor have started believing in the status quo on sanitation.  However, the good news is that it makes sense to invest in a sustainable household toilet by rural and urban poor. Consider economic benefits from  sustainable household sanitation. If you explain  to an ordinary citizen thatIndia loses 6% of its GDP due to lack of adequate sanitation, the likeliness that this resonates with them is bleak except for being informed of some interestingeconomic data. However when you explain toa family of 5 persons that by not having a household toilet,their family is losing out annually an amount of Rs. 10250 /- approximately on health expenditurewhich could be easily saved, There is a high chance that  that you get an affirmative nod, listening ears and engaging minds.

Figure-1: Loss due to inadequate sanitation


Most of the estimates say that a sustainable and aspirational individual household toilet (a latrine cum bathroom with handwashing facility) is achievable within Rs.15000 to Rs.30000 per unit (connection to sewerage /Twin Pit/ Septic Tank with seepage pit /Bio Tanks with Seepage pits). However, the incentive to the eligible beneficiaries under SBM urban remains limited to Rs. 12000/ per household in rural areas and Rs. 8000 to Rs. 13000 per household in urban areas in many states.

The argument that needs to be taken to the people is that it makes perfect economic sense to invest in a sustainable and aspirational toilet even if they have to co- finance the cost by an additional amount required to construct a sustainable and aspirational toilet, as the benefit cost ratio (estimated to be 7.7 in case of SE Asia as per one of the studies) of construction of sustainable and improved toilet is too high to ignore.  With MFIs getting increasingly involved for soft loans for sanitation financing by household and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds being increasingly committed to support SBM, the time could not have been better to break this myth. In turn, to help people with getting access to their aspirational and sustainable toilet and access to sanitation financing. This indeed will ensure to plug the leakages between toilet construction and its usages and also increase the life of a toilet to live its full design year at least, if not more.

Myth # 3 – Of technological puzzles , perceptions and realities

There are a number of myths associated with sanitation technologies being implemented under SBM (Rural) and SBM (urban). How often do we hear that on-site is better than off -site sanitation solutions in the Indian context?  You may also hear of the poor quality of Septic Tanks being constructed and therefore surrounding pollution. How often do we attribute governance/management/planning failures to technological failures, for example the. performance of Sewerage Networks and Sewerage Treatment Plants.

The point here is that the implementation of SBM will need all the technologies that are available and probably many more for sustainable sanitation solutions which are context specific, affordable and require minimum operation and maintenance interventions or costs. However, there are no silver bullets here because each of the technology needs to be managed.  These myths related to technological puzzles, perception and scientific realities can be overcome by bringing in this knowledge and expertise within the domain of each household in a language which can be best understood by them. The best suited for the role of scientific communicators can be school and college children and therefore it is important to make this simplified technological knowledge on sanitation as part of curriculum and discussions in the schools and colleges of India.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here at those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion, standpoint or policy of the organization and networks that he works for and works with.

– Puneet Srivastava is a qualified civil engineer and environmentalist, working in the area of water, sanitation and hygiene for past 20 years with a varied range of organizations in India and abroad.  In past he has worked with DFID-India, World Bank assisted UP/Uttaranchal Rural water supply and sanitation Project, Feedback Ventures Private Limited, Halcrow Consulting Limited, Oxfam GB, UNICEF, German Development Cooperation (GIZ- earlier known as GTZ) ICRC Geneva and currently working with Water Aid India in New Delhi.



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