India's sanitation spot Moving towards non-water based solutions in the future requires careful planning

India Water Portal
Saturday, November 22, 2014 - 10:30

Philippe Cullet

Philippe Cullet

How do we understand sanitation today? And where has progress been?

Progress has mostly been in terms of understanding sanitation in terms of WASH (water supply, sanitation and hygiene) but not quite as a Right to Water and cleanliness. However, as a derivative right (rights which are designed to further the interests of persons other than those to whom the rights are granted), courts have been quite forthcoming in linking sanitation with water and health. But there is a lot to be done in terms of addressing issues related to dignity of the individual. For example there is a clear recognition that manual scavenging is an affront to the dignity of the individual with the Constitution, as Article 17 lays down, but little is done to erase the practice.

In the last 60 years, the focus has been supplying water. What has been at the core of how we’ve looked at sanitation?

At first the focus was health. Then it became increasingly linked to water. But the focus on sanitation has tended to be mostly on toilets. Recent policy documents, including the TSC (Total Sanitation campaign) which is now the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, make all the right noises in terms of acknowledging the broader context within which to understand sanitation. But the practice is still largely toilet focused only.

TSC was never been given the capacity to be successful. Incentives are not going to do the trick. Even subsidies would not. Massive investments in communal facilities are necessary and secondly, even if household owners were given a substantial subsidy to build a toilet, the government would still need to make investments to ensure that waste water can be disposed off safely. This is important as long as sanitation is water-based in the country. Moving towards non-water based solutions requires very careful planning.

Cost recovery is contradictory to what one would expect when talking about a fundamental right to water. Pic courtesy: Gram Vikas

Cost recovery is contradictory to what one would expect when talking about a fundamental right to water. Pic courtesy: Gram Vikas

In dealing with water supply issues, there has been a distinct shift to treating water as an economic asset. What impact does this have?

The focus on ‘cost recovery’, the main motto of current water policies, is to make sure that people pay for the water they use. This is problematic because it doesn’t take into account the fact that most don’t pay for water – it is usually free in rural areas unless piped (in very few cases), free in urban areas wherever there are community taps, hand pumps or where the local government has paid for infrastructure. Hence, despite talk that the poor will benefit because they will pay proportionately less, paying for water actually only applies to a certain percentage of the urban population currently not served by these utilities and who are being fleeced by private vendors.

The focus on cost recovery becomes even more problematic when it moves towards capital cost recovery. This cost recovery issue became official during the Swajaldhara years. The Swajaldhara project aimed at providing drinking water to all villages in the country by 2004. Though this project has been abandoned, the idea of making water users pay has not been abandoned.

Cost recovery is just contrary to what one would expect when talking about a fundamental Right to Water where the discussion should start from what the state will provide. This is also where courts have put an emphasis in their judgements realted to water as a right.

Do you believe that the objective of eliminating manual scavenging is being compromised in the quest for sanitation for all?

What I understand is that the two, as far as possible, are delinked today. This has probably been done as it makes it easier to then discuss them. This seems to be the logical explanation for the introduction in TSC of ‘ecological sanitation’ in its 2010 and 2011 versions. It became a bit too difficult to argue that non-water based sanitation was ‘good’ only in terms of achieving cleanliness as this did not take into account existing issues linked to manual scavenging.

Converting dry latrines to water-borne latrines emerges as the dominant method of eliminating the practice of manual scavenging. Yet manual scavenging is still on. Why?

This method is not competent technically. But there seem to be enough models that can be used to ensure that in different contexts (climatic, hydrologic), different solutions that do not require manual scavenging can be implemented. The issue doesn’t seem to be a lack of technology but an unwillingness to implement the right and effective methods. An example can be the Railways and the way they keep dragging their feet.

‘There is the issue of dignity for manual scavengers as well, but that is the same with other loopholes in sanitation (like women and access to toilets).’Pic courtesy: Praveen (photoyogi) through CC,

‘There is the issue of dignity for manual scavengers as well, but that is the same with other loopholes in sanitation (like women and access to toilets).’Pic courtesy: Praveen (photoyogi) through CC

Are we in the danger of viewing scavenging purely as an issue of sanitation, divorced from the right of scavengers to dignity?

On the one hand, looking at it as a caste issue is making eradication of manual scavenging difficult, and on the other hand, sanitation remains an issue that is difficult to address upfront in various contexts.

According to the recent Millenium Development Goals (MDG) report released, India has performed worst in the world in terms of improving access to basic sanitation. 49.2% of Indian households lack toilets of any kind, with a high bias towards urban areas. In the light of this report, what do you think of the recent governmental thrust towards sanitation in rural areas?

A lot more money seems to be available. The policy framework that accompanies TSC for rural areas (NBA guidelines of a construction subsidy of Rs. 10,000 per latrine) confirms that there is more money for ‘incentives’ but there is no rethinking of the policy framework followed since the late 1990s. This seems to preclude major changes in delivery but hopefully I am proved wrong!

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