A perspective on sustainable governance and Swacchh Bharat Mission in India -Vandana Nath, India Sanitation Coalition

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The sanitation problem in India cannot be understated. While decades of sustained economic growth has made India the seventh-largest economy in the world today, the provision of public services such as water, sanitation, solid waste management, and drainage continue to be a challenge. A lot of programs already have been started in the past decades, however, none of them could fully grasp the full cycle of water management and sanitation. With an urgent need to re-energise and remodel its approach, the Government of India launched the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) in 2014. Also the 2015 Sustainable Development Goal 6 “represents a significant deepening of ambition, aiming to ‘achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation’ by 2030”[1]. Today, India has a historic opportunity to address the problem of sanitation in its entirety using the momentum generated by SBM to realise the ambition of sustainable sanitation, one of the prime goals of SDGs.

The inauguration of SBM with focus both on rural and urban areas is an achievement. SBM brought sanitation and water “on the table”. The message is clear and with the new SDGs awareness has increased massively both nationally and in the international sphere. Increasingly projects and NGO are settling for improving sanitation. Campaigns and events like Global Citizen point citizens to realize the urge for a Swachh Bharat. GOI creates different-different policies in and around the WASH umbrella, not only toilet building activities but sees the need for integration of sectors like menstrual hygiene management (MHM Guidelines), corporate social responsibility (Swachh Kosh) or WASH in school activities (Swachh Vidyalaya).

Though there is no shortage of policy level recommendations at the central level, their impact and infiltration at the ground level is very limited.  To create sustainability, these policies need to work hand-in-hand with the implementation of its programs.  There is a dire need for thought leadership to move this forward.  Policy advocacy is not merely the creation of laws and regulations; it has to create an enabling environment for sustainable change.  Sanitation also needs good governance. UNESCO understands Governance as an act

… to refer to structures and processes that are designed to ensure accountability, transparency, responsiveness, rule of law, stability, equity and inclusiveness, empowerment, and broad-based participation. Governance also represents the norms, values and rules of the game through which public affairs are managed in a manner that is transparent, participatory, inclusive and responsive. Governance therefore can be subtle and may not be easily observable.  In a broad sense, governance is about the culture and institutional environment in which citizens and stakeholders interact among themselves and participate in public affairs. It is more than the organs of the government.”[2]

This is a huge challenge for India at this time.  Though the central government has taken the bold initiative in its SBM, there is much work needed to translate these policies into real solutions and engage not only national, but also state and local bodies as well as the society as a whole.

The need is to trickle these solutions to the last mile with an efficient governance and effective implementation. The right governance system and a model to help address “Produce to Use” strategy are important. This process is indeed not an easy one, but efforts and motivation are the first step towards achieving a “Swachh Bharat”. However, a “one size fits all” didn´t, does and will not work in the Indian context. To tackle the problem of the last mile, a closer look in the Governance body and process has to be taken forward. Different important challenges that SBM urgently needs to work on  are explained here.

Integration of the full water and sanitation cycle

The image of sanitation has to move beyond “going to the toilet”. Since SBM started in 2014, the main focus from governance has been construction of toilets. With the current mission India runs the risk of neglecting the whole wastewater cycle. Sanitation is a complex and intertwined topic. It has significant impact on health, nutrition, security, environment and human rights. According to the World Bank 47% of children could be saved from diarrhoea if sanitation systems would be offered broadly.[3]

Understanding sanitation often does not include the big picture of sanitation. Once a toilet is constructed, is has to been maintained, the disposal of human waste has to be safely managed and people actually have to use the toilet regularly. On top of that, sanitation also includes the knowledge of hygiene such as handwashing activities and menstrual hygiene actions. The SBM lacks the governing of the solid and liquid wastewater management. Sewage systems, on-site systems like septic tanks and other solutions are not prioritized by GOI. The conjunction from sanitation to drinking water is not applicable. On-site systems also need to be operated and emptied. The next step has to be a safe disposal in a treatment plant or sewerage system. SBM has set numbered goals in toilet construction and ODF, which are handy to monitor. But it lacks the full understanding and implementation of policies that focus on the full cycle. “This implies paying attention not only to wastewater conveyance and treatment, but also to less visible concerns like poor construction of on-site systems and lack of operations and maintenance”[4]. The Shit Flow Diagram (SFD) tool is a good visualization for explaining the whole cycle. For example in Tirupati, 30%[5] of the wastewater is untreated. In Delhi the number is even as high as 46%  SBM is prone to toilet construction without taking these points into consideration. In Nashik, only 15% are not managed safely.[6]

This leads to the question of how sustainable the current governance/policy of SBM actually is.

Sustainable Governance and long term vision

SBM with the deadline of 2019 tries to become ODF. But what comes after that deadline? What if all the toilets constructed now will not be in use any more? The need for sustainable solutions should be taken seriously, not only on the environmental perspective but also for economic reasons and financing of sanitation project. According to the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA),  and the members of the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council as the “Bellagio Principles for Sustainable Sanitation” during its 5th Global Forum in November 2000: Human dignity, quality of life and environmental security at household level should be at the centre of any sanitation approach.

  1. In line with good governance principles, decision making should involve participation of all stakeholders, especially the consumers and providers of services.
  2. Waste should be considered a resource, and its management should be holistic and form part of integrated water resources, nutrient flow and waste management processes.
  3. The domain in which environmental sanitation problems are resolved should be kept to the minimum practicable size (household, neighborhood, community, town, district, catchments, city)[7]

Sustainability in sanitation the following points should be implemented for sustainable sanitation: Waste should be considered a resource, and its management should be holistic and form part of integrated water resources, nutrient flow and waste management processes. The sustainability aspect is missing on paper and in the heads of people. A longterm vision on sanitation and drinking water after 2019 should already be published by now. Policies currently lack this aspect.

Capacity building and effective governance

The capacity and resources for sanitation are limited. Especially in urban areas, regulations need to be implemented for proper waste disposal. A “one size fits all” approach is not working.[8] Communication between local bodies and higher institutions is missing. Local communities are often not given the chance to communicate their needs into the political level. Effective governance means to create rules and norms which fit local realities. This means also a democratic, inclusive approach, where politicians not only act according to some policy plan which has to be fulfilled, but also listen to the beneficiaries of a policy. The responsibility for drinking water and sanitation lies at the government site. Governance in a federal state tends to get slow and confusing. A lot of policies are being implemented from different actors. The legislative framework shifts the major responsibility of sanitation and wastewater management to state and/or local bodies. In reality, national agendas on sanitation influence the various state sanitation agendas. Especially financial support mainly comes from national ministries. On the national level, the Ministry for Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDWS) mainly leads the SBM for rural areas, whereas the Ministry for Urban Development (MoUD) established an urban SBM. WASH activities like Swachh Vidyalaya are coordinated by the Ministry of Human Resource Development. If it comes to sanitation systems and local infrastructure within households, the Ministry for Housing and Urban Poverty Allevation (HUPA) takes the lead. The capacity for sanitation issues in government bodies has been implemented, but effectiveness in communication and actually achieving goals still is missing. A clear framework for actions has not been published so far. That gives the feeling of rather impulsive actions in WASH that lack management of implementation actions, especially in local areas.

Another fact that has to be pointed out is that capacity of public service involvement in sanitation sector is very low. Most septic tank cleaners operate privately. Standards of waste disposal do not reach yet an implementation level. The Delhi Shit Flow Diagram shows that although toilet coverage is high, only 56% of the human waste “produced” is being disposed safely.[9] Capacity building for understanding of the whole cycle is missing and often hidden by non-transparent government responsibilities. At the moment, the “trend” in the sanitation sector is FSM, which is very much needed in a lot of places around India, but leaves out the opportunities of other technologies and off-site sewerage systems, that are hardly seen in any big cities. The window of opportunity for sanitation systems in India is there, it just needs to be filled properly and timely.

On the other hand Corporate Social Responsibility is on the rise in India. Companies have started working on sanitation through their corporate social responsibility (CSR) wings and private foundations. These are early days and except for a few, large-scale action has been limited.

Ownership and Collaboration

Everybody does it but less people care for it. Sanitation systems tend to create the impression that you can flush and give away human waste. “Your own business” no longer is your own business when it comes to sanitation. It needs the individual to understand the scope of WASH impacts every single person has. Creating policies on national level is simply not enough to reach Swachh Bharat. “Given the scale of the challenge and India’s very disparate socio-political landscape, performance varies from State to State and even within a State. Too often we depend on an individual without making the change systemic”, Naina Lal Kidwai stated in an online discussion.[10]

Governance has to move beyond creating rules and policies towards integrating a nations citizen. That requires a sense of responsibility and taking on ownership for their own good. “The positive incentives identified for prioritisation of sanitation are necessary, but not

sufficient. Peoples’ perceptions about autonomy and authority shape how they respond to incentives to prioritise sanitation”.[11] Activities on behaviour change are therefore very much needed. In the biggest democracy in the world, the people of India has to understand and more importantly want the need for Swachh Bharat.  GOI cannot do the job on its own, as state level actors cannot provide sanitation services. As a collaborate action between citizens, institutions, organisations and government bodies, everybody has to work together more instead of scape-goating a certain policy or one single institution. Sanitation and access to clean water is something everybody should have and every person should want. However, Swachh Bharat will not appear magically, but through hard work, new ideas, creating solutions by collaboration.

In the first year of SBM, more than 5.8 million toilets were constructed in rural areas and about 1 million in urban spaces.[12] How many of them are in use? Are they maintained well? Is the waste disposed safely? Who disposed waste? All these and many more questions come up. SBM is not only a mission about achieving numbers. Governance stops at the construction of toilet so far. The problem is that people expect GOI or state governments to subsidize toilet constructions, conduct workshops or set up septic tanks, but they do not plan to engage themselves. Sanitation at this level is not simply a public service. It’s a goal everybody has to work on. “The successes we are seeing now are largely due to the leadership and commitment of district officials, starting with the district magistrates and collectors, chief executive officers, district coordinators, district panchayati raj officers, engineers, etc. This is laudable but needs to be institutionalised so the entire machinery in the district is oriented towards ODF – achievement and sustainability”[13]

[1] Mason, N., Matoso, M., Hueso, A., 2016: Beyond political commitment to sanitation: Navigating incentives for prioritisation and course correction in Ethiopia, India and Indonesia. WaterAid

[2] UNESCO 2016: Concept of Governance“ http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/strengthening-education-systems/quality-framework/technical-notes/concept-of-governance/

[3] Pandey, K. 2014: Better sanitation key to improving children’s health: World Bank report


[4] Wankhade, K., 2015: Urban sanitation in India: key shifts in the national policy frame. International Institute for Environment and Development Vol 27(2).

[5] Roeder, L. (2016). SFD Report (draft) – Tirupati, India – SFD Promotion Initiative. Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) http://www.susana.org/_resources/documents/default/3-2570-7-1464694097.pdf

[6] Roeder, L. (2015). SFD Report – Nashik, India – SFD Promotion Initiative. Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) http://www.susana.org/_resources/documents/default/3-2372-7-1457445850.pdf

[7] SuSanA Homepage: http://www.susana.org/en/about/sustainable-sanitation

[8] Sankar, U. 2016: To be or not to be a toilet: Moving away from a one size fits all approach to sanitation http://wateraidindia.in/blog/not-toilet-moving-away-one-size-fits-approach-sanitation/#comment-98

[9] Down to Earth 2016: Urban Shit http://www.downtoearth.org.in/coverage/urban-shit-53422

[10] SuSanA discussion Forum “On the way to clean India” August 2016 http://forum.susana.org/component/kunena/260-theme-1-policy-and-institutions/18530-policy-and-institutions–2-years-of-swacch-bharat-mission-graminrural?limit=12&start=12

[11] Mason, N., Matoso, M., Hueso, A., 2016: Beyond political commitment to sanitation: Navigating incentives for prioritisation and course correction in Ethiopia, India and Indonesia. WaterAid

[12] Sangupta, S. 2016: Usage of toilets in India is over 95 per cent, reveals new NSSO survey 14.04.2016


[13] SuSanA discussion Forum “On the way to clean India” August 2016 http://forum.susana.org/component/kunena/260-theme-1-policy-and-institutions/18530-policy-and-institutions–2-years-of-swacch-bharat-mission-graminrural?limit=12&start=12


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