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On sanitation in India

August 31, 2014

The sanitation question

With the Prime Minister emphasizing the need for India to gear up on sanitation and announcing a clean India campaign from October 2nd 2014  sanitation is now firmly on the front burner of every city and village. The challenge is of course enormous and though global each solution will be hyper-local. For a city with reasonably good infrastructure and with a reasonably good economic prosperity it should be easier than say for a poorer city with a high slum population. Yet answers will have to be found and quickly for the toll bad sanitation takes on the health of people and the economy is very high.

The imagination for toilets and waste-water will for example have to be comprehensive and will need to take account from source to sink. While private toilets will come up on individual sites, care will need to be taken that underground sewage lines are laid and connection to them is easy and affordable. Else this will lead to toilet waste being led into storm drains and polluting entire water systems including lakes , which can then become breeding grounds for mosquitoes and flies, dangerous vectors for diseases. Well functioning public and community toilets will be a challenge, for it is not in the construction but the continuous maintenance and cleanliness which will be the challenge here. As Bangalore saw with the beautifully designed Infosys Foundation supported toilets, it takes a specialized institution and focus to keep the toilets running in good condition.

  Sewage will have to be picked up in underground lines and treated fully preferably enabling recovery of water and nutrients. It can no longer be allowed to flow in storm-water drains, rivers and lakes.

At the individual and community level some uncomfortable questions will need answers. During the construction of the building did we insist on the contractor to make toilet provision for the workers? Does our apartment and layout have enough clean public toilets for the service staff and visitors to use? Do our offices, schools and colleges have clean, functional toilets with running water? This  is as much a responsibility as any for the management.

Storm water drains and garbage seem to go hand in hand. We as a citizenry seem to believe drains are meant to dump garbage. This cannot be allowed to continue. Segregated garbage will need to be handed over by a responsible citizenry and then collected, composted or recycled by a responsible local government. A specialized institution like the Karnataka Compost Development Corporation achieved wonders for years. It is time such institutions are strengthened and asked to go on with the job.  It is a crying shame that we have allowed landfills to proliferate and devastate the lives of villagers surrounding our cities. Storm-water drains will then have to be regularly maintained from weeds so as to stop vector breeding. Dengue, Chikungunya and Malaria are all prevalent and this is a fall out of an unclean and unhygienic city.

A lot will depend on individual and community action and building the right competent institutions for solid waste, for community toilets and sewage management and for storm-water drains. Cleaning up the neighbourhood and the ward with the help of the local Corporator will be key for this is primarily the responsibility of the local government. Now that there is backing from the very topmost political leadership this is the time to become water and waste wise.

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