ODF India is an immense achievement, but it must be made sustainable: CSE

New Delhi, Oct 1: India, as per official claims and proclamations, is all set to become open defecation free (ODF) on October 2, 2019, a day that marks the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. In the past four years, India has built 100 million toilets in about 0.6 million villages, and another 6.3 million in its cities.

By all accounts, it is an incredible feat. As per a 2019 report of the Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) for water supply and sanitation, of Unicef and the World Health Organization (WHO), between 2000 and 2014, open defecation decreased by some 3 percentage points a year, while between 2015 and 2019 it reduced at over 12 percentage points a year.

According to government estimates, by February 2019, over 93 per cent of the country’s rural households had access to toilets; over 96 per cent of them also used the toilets, suggesting an important change in behaviour. Ninety-nine per cent of the toilets were found to be well maintained, hygienic and in 100 per cent of these toilets, excreta was “safely” disposed.

Says Sunita Narain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE): “Till barely five years ago, India was home to 60 per cent of the world’s people who defecated in the open – if the nation now achieves ODF status, it means a huge leap forward not only for it, but for the world as a whole. It will take the world a long way on its sustainable development goal of universal coverage to toilets and safe disposal of excreta.”

“However, the scale of this transition is so massive that it will mean new, bigger challenges,” Narain adds. “Will the extraordinary success of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) stand the test of time? How will the over 100 million toilets be maintained and kept functional? Will people continue to use them? Will the millions of tonnes of waste generated by these toilets be managed and disposed of efficiently, without polluting the environment? How will we make this success sustainable, make it last?”

Ground truths
CSE researchers point out that even if toilets have been built and are being used, the trend can reverse. A case in point is Haryana, which had declared itself ODF in 2017 – a recent investigation by Down To Earth magazine reveals people are slipping back to the old habit of open defecation.

There is also the question of ‘safe’ disposal of the waste generated by these toilets. According to the National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey (NARSS) 2018-19, the nationwide survey undertaken by the government to establish SBM’s success, disposal is “safe” if the toilet is connected to a septic tank with a soak pit, single or double leach pit, or to a drain. “This is an inadequate and erroneous definition of ‘safe’, says Narain.

She points out that these are only systems for containment of the excreta, not its disposal. According to the Survey, roughly 34 per cent toilets are septic tanks with a soak pit; another 30 per cent are double leach pits, and another 20 per cent are single pits. NARSS assumes that these toilets will safely decompose the excreta in-situ.

But this will depend completely on the quality of the construction of the toilets – CSE researchers say that this is the crux of the problem. If the septic tanks or double leach pit toilets are constructed well, then the excreta will be safely decomposed and when removed, will be safe for reuse on land.

But CSE’s ground surveys in peri-urban India have found that the quality of septic tanks is poor; waste is unsafely disposed of by tankers on the land and in open drains, or worse, in waterbodies.

Says Narain: “The question that we need to ask ourselves is will this lead to another, far bigger challenge, when the pits are emptied and not-yet-decomposed waste is dumped into waterbodies or in the fields? The resultant soil and water contamination can be catastrophic for public health.”