Three ways India can tackle its human-waste problem

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6 aims to ensure availability of clean water and sanitation for all. The two are deeply interconnected issues: Lack of robust sanitation, waste management infrastructure and processes have long-term negative impacts on water supply and quality.

On 2 October, the government of India declared the country open defecation-free (ODF). This is a significant milestone, which has addressed mindset, behavioural change and infrastructure gaps “Before the Flush”. But what happens “After the Flush”?

It is estimated that poor sanitation costs India 5.2 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) annually. While much is being done to create access to toilets, the fact remains more than 57 per cent of human waste globally is not contained, transported, or treated in a way that safely contains harmful pathogens. A staggering 78 per cent of sewage generated in India remains untreated and is unsafely disposed of in rivers, groundwater or lakes, contaminating 90 per cent of all surface water. India must find ways to manage its faecal sludge to secure clean water sources to meet the needs of its burgeoning population of 1.37 billion, and facilitate their healthy, productive participation in the economy.

Stemming the faecal sludge tide
A Centre for Science and Environment analysis suggests India’s daily capacity to treat sewage is at an estimated 30 per cent of material generated, with actual quantities treated at significantly lower levels. Add to this the increasing costs of water supply and distribution losses in urban areas, and cities are often unable to recover cost of supply, and consequently, left lacking in resources to invest in sewage treatment.

Given the extent of the infrastructure and resources gap, a mix of public, philanthropic and patient private capital, technology-led strategies and a bold entrepreneurial approach nurtured by a positive regulatory environment are necessary to contain and solve this crisis.

To achieve an ODF India, much focus was being given to Before the Flush in the value chain. But this addresses only the capture and containment aspect. However, the stages from Emptying to Safe Reuse or Disposal now deserve attention, resources and awareness.

Shift systems and mindsets
A progressive regulatory framework incentivising good citizen behaviours around faecal sludge management, similar to the government of Maharashtra’s rebate on property tax for responsible solid waste management, would be a powerful first step to inspire mindset change and citizen action.

In addition, a matching scheme for unlocking public capital alongside philanthropic dollars to establish local infrastructure and nurture entrepreneurship is key. In many areas, laying sewage pipelines is not feasible. Hence, a hybrid solution including tanker operator services is necessary to service India’s cities and towns in their entirety. State governments ought to invite and incentivise entrepreneurship in this area, offering access to low-cost capital and medium-term tax breaks for tanker operators.

Alongside these system-level investments, practical elements such as nationwide awareness campaigns to educate and influence attitudes and behaviours, and help lines for easy access to pit-emptying services are necessary interventions to inspire change and galvanise action.


Shape leveraging technology and new jobs
A technology-led approach is critical for accelerating progress in a heavily stigmatised area, typically serviced by the most marginalised populations working in high-risk conditions. Though manual scavenging – the cleaning of sewage pipes and septic tanks by hand – was banned in India 25 years ago, it continues to be in practice. The existence of insanitary latrines (dry toilets) and structural problems with poor construction of septic tanks result in the continuing of this occupation.

Given the range of solutions available in India and globally, simple interventions can significantly improve safety standards, enhance efficiency and restore dignity. For example, interventions such as the use of mini-jetting machines and manual robots to access narrow lanes and clear choked sewer pipes, an app-based service offering radio-frequency identification tags (RFID) on tankers to enhance productivity, increase accountability and enable monitoring, and upskilling and rehabilitating manual scavengers and informal workers to undertake these new jobs.

Strengthen with new narratives and solutions
India’s water and energy needs are rapidly growing. Circular and sustainable approaches to human waste management could offer a huge opportunity to meet both these demands, delivering significant economic gains. Leaders must be galvanised to adopt a bold entrepreneurial outlook, championing a new narrative on “human waste as an energy source”. The environmental benefits and business case for renewable natural gas are clear. While several models are at work across the globe, India could leapfrog by mainstreaming such solutions at scale.

The Forum of Young Global Leaders has joined hands with Population Services International to scale up a pilot successfully implemented in Bihar’s capital, Patna, addressing the city’s faecal sludge management challenges. Close to 80,000 residents have benefitted with 25 per cent less faecal sludge contaminating open areas and 5 million litres disposed of at a treatment plant. This pilot has established the (i) merits of localised commercially sustainable solutions, organising tanker operators as a collective of small businesses offering paid pit and septic tank emptying services; and (ii) the power of public-private partnership, by unlocking access to underutilised capacity at government-owned sewage treatment plants, enabling safe disposal. In its next phase, this project will reach 10 cities in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh by 2022.

India’s sanitation economy is estimated to grow to $63 billion by 2021. Prioritising investment and action to solve the faecal sludge challenge is the right and smart thing to do, and India must now define a new ODF and harness all the opportunities in the After the Flush value chain to become Open Dumping Free.