Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launches Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan. Photo by: Modi Flickr / CC BY-SA

NEW DELHI — India has built millions of toilets in the past three years as part of an ambitious national effort spearheaded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and while the country is approaching its goal of being free of open defecation, a key new challenge has emerged: what to do with all that waste.

When Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the campaign’s official Hindi name that translates to “Clean India Mission,” was launched in 2014, Modi made a bold $31 billion commitment to make the country open defecation free by 2019 — in large part by building some 111 million latrines or toilets.

India counts down to its open defecation elimination goal

Academics and development experts want to see political support for Clean India beyond 2019. But for now, the SBM demonstrates unparalleled positive behavior change, they tell Devex.

The government’s progress data puts that goal within reach, but about 60 percent of households in India are beyond the coverage of a sewage network. Even big cities such as New Delhi only have about 45 percent of the population with access to a sewer, according to a 2017 WaterAid report. Most of the toilets built as part of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, also known as SBM, are pit latrines or connected to septic systems, which need regular emptying and maintenance.

Before SBM, unsafe sanitation caused about 199 million cases of diarrhea a year in India, but a World Health Organization study found that those numbers have been declining and should be almost entirely eliminated if the country achieves its goal of the universal use of safe sanitation facilities by 2019. About 300,000 deaths will have been averted between 2014 — when SBM was launched — through 2019, the study predicted. But if the safe sanitary facilities aren’t maintained, and the waste is not treated properly, those health benefits could backslide and the hard behavior change work done to get people to use the toilets could be for naught.

“Interest [in sanitation] doesn’t seem to be waning, but … we need to make sure gains made now are institutionalized in ways that are sustainable.”

— Mark Peters, head of USAID’s water, sanitation, and hygiene team in India

Fecal sludge and septage management is an issue that has been somewhat overlooked amid the push to give everyone in the country access to a toilet and convince them to use it. As the country looks to the next phase of its work, it is turning to this challenge and, in part, looking to entrepreneurs to help come up with solutions.

An emerging policy framework, but where is the money?

While the physical construction of toilets was the focus of much of SBM’s work, the government has, in the past couple years, begun recognizing the waste management issue, and with the help and pressure of a coalition of donors and nonprofit organizations, released a new policy framework.

The policy released by the Indian ministry of urban development in February 2017 created state-level guidelines, objectives, and implementation plans; created a benchmark framework and reporting system, and created a central strategy for capacity building and training.

It’s largely now up to states and cities to take up the work themselves, though the federal government still has a role.

The government is “engaging positively” in conversations about fecal sludge management and waste collection, but different actors need professionalization and there is a need for some government skilling programs, said Mark Peters, who leads the United States Agency for International Development’s water, sanitation, and hygiene team in India.

In India, toilets are unlikely to be connected to large-scale expensive sewerage systems and so the treatment of fecal sludge needs to be decentralized, he said. Unfortunately, in many countries today, the collection, treatment, and disposal of fecal sludge is done by informal, largely unregulated service providers.

“Flush and forget is a mindset,” said Arumugam Kalimuthu, program director of the SBM Urban Technical Assistance Program at the WASH Institute, adding that communication strategies and behavior change are necessary to get people to treat waste properly.  

While the government is focusing more on waste management, there is still a major gap in liquid waste management, he said. Only about six states have adopted the national guidelines so far and are working to implement them, but others are still focused on building the physical toilets and latrines, Kalimuthu said. A major challenge is funding, as the federal policy did not come with implementation funds, he said.

“The main thing is the policy framework is in place,” Kalimuthu said. “I think this is going to scale if next year the government allocates money.”  

Communities also need to be educated that their septic tanks need to be cleaned every two to three years and understand the consequences if they are not, he said. Some local politicians have suggested increasing the housing tax and using those funds to maintain sanitation infrastructure, including cleaning household septic tanks, as a way to get around some of the behavior change challenges, Kalimuthu said.  

But there is also a regulatory challenge, he said, noting that many tank operators dump waste in water bodies or on unused land because there are no sewage treatment plants, or they are far away.

The trick is to move beyond infrastructure to service delivery, with service providers who are treating the waste properly, USAID’s Peters said. Historically water and sanitation in India has been a heavily subsidized industry, with most services provided by the government, but as the sector matures it will need to move to a mix of subsidy and payment for service, he said.

“Interest [in sanitation] doesn’t seem to be waning, but … we need to make sure gains made now are institutionalized in ways that are sustainable,” Peters said.

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Innovation needed

Last month a group of about a dozen entrepreneurs presented their water and sanitation solutions to a panel in the city of Faridabad — offering sewer cleaning robots, biological solutions to boost waste treatment plant capacity, and more, as part of a three-city accelerator program. Some of those solutions, or other emerging innovations, may well need to be part of the broader solution to treat nonsewered waste.

The IHUWASH Accelerator, which organized the event, is a partnership of the Innovation Hub for Urban Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Solutions at the National Institute of Urban Affairs, USAID, Ennovent, and other partners. It seeks to bring together cities, academic institutions, and entrepreneurs to address WASH challenges and find effective ways of working together.

One of those presenting was Manjeet Singh, the regional head of sales for Ekam Eco Solutions, who was pitching an organic product that helps septic systems and sewage treatment plants operate at greater capacity by introducing bacteria that eat the waste into the system, generating water that can be used for irrigation.

While people are interested in the product, including governments, they are slow to implement it, Singh said. Sensitizing people to the need for fecal sludge management solutions is important, but Singh believes that people won’t truly act until it is mandated. Working with the city of Faridabad could help the company build its track record and make it easier to work with other cities in the future, he said.

The industry presents a huge opportunity, but there are definitely a number of challenges, said Venugopal Gupta, director of the Toilet Board Coalition’s accelerator program in India. “If you look at the demand side, the demands are from biological processes. It’s a recession-proof industry, demand is growing and demand will be durable for long time to come.”

“Something needs to happen a lot faster and new models need to emerge where government is an enabler rather than contract creator, contract seller.”

— Venugopal Gupta, director of the Toilet Board Coalition’s accelerator program in India

Some of the key challenges are creating off-grid sanitation facilities that can be implemented at a fraction of the cost of laying down sewer networks, truly finding solutions for community-scale decentralized sanitation and building effective sanitation value chains, he said.

To truly build an industry, the sanitation market in India needs to go from government-controlled to government-enabled, Gupta said. In the past the government has fully controlled the sanitation value chains, which would limit a company’s ability to grow, he added. Governments are starting to recognize the need to foster greater entrepreneurship in this area. “But something needs to happen a lot faster and new models need to emerge where government is an enabler rather than contract creator, contract seller,” he said.

Some states are experimenting with new methods of working with the private sector, including through public-private partnerships. Gupta said as cities or states test certain types of contracts, others can copy them, allowing momentum to build.

IHUWASH has been working on some of these challenges, including whether municipalities are willing to pay for services, said Utsav Choudhury, monitoring and evaluation coordinator of the IHUWASH team. Its WASH labs have been training municipal officials to see how they might benefit from partnerships and building a stronger sanitation ecosystem.

Entrepreneurs have to be able to attract and convince investors they will be able to repay the investment, which has been particularly difficult in an environment where sanitation has been considered a government-funded basic service. But there is a growing understanding that there are costs to maintenance, he said. Better consumer finance for sanitation products could help, Gupta said, and the asset finance and consumer finance industries will need to step up.

“Overall momentum is increasing and as there is more private sector participation, that should increase even more,” he said.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is a Senior Reporter at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.