On the occasion of Swachh Bharat Diwas, we at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) bring to you evidence driven understanding of what it means to declare a district ‘open defecation free’, and an overview of the state of ‘manual scavenging in India’ – through two podcasts and blogs.
Understanding how Udaipur was declared Open Defecation Free: In the first podcast and blog, Devashish Deshpande, Senior Research Associate at the Accountability Initiative (AI) at CPR, unpacks the processes behind declaring Udaipur Open Defecation Free (ODF). On the request of the Udaipur district administration, AI undertook a sample survey of recently declared and verified ODF Gram Panchayats (GPs) in 2017. The study, co-authored with Avani Kapur, Director, AI, found significant gaps in the processes involved in achieving ODF, resulting in less than 100% toilet coverage, and and even lower usage, questions the veracity of the ODF status.
Importantly, in Udaipur, the access usage gap reveals that communication efforts did not keep pace with the construction blitz. Awareness of important aspects, including sludge management and hygiene, was found to be very low. In order to understand whether this dissonance between policy and implementation is an aberration, AI has also been analysing the administrative data of the Mission every year.
The findings in Udaipur highlight the core issue of districts and then states being rapidly declared ODF, with a focus on the completion of predetermined (and not necessarily accurate) toilet construction targets, as opposed to examining the usability and usage of toilets and safe sanitation.
State of Manual Scavenging in India: In the second podcast and blog, Senior Fellow, Shubhagato Dasgupta and Fellow, Arkaja Singh discuss manual scavenging induced deaths, contextualising sanitation practices historically, the legal options available, and the kind of preventive infrastructure required.
According to a recent estimate by the National Commission of Safai Karamcharis, 123 people have died in cleaning sewers and septic tanks since 1 Jan 2017, which adds up to one death in every five days. Official numbers estimate that approximately 53,000 people are engaged in manual scavenging work, but other estimates, such as from Dalberg, suggest that as many as 5 million people are engaged in some form of manual scavenging work – including in the most upmarket hotels, commercial complexes and gated communities, in publicly managed sewerage systems, and in private septic tanks, which proliferate across urban India. This work also has a long association with caste discrimination.
The podcast disentangles some of the issues around unsafe sanitation infrastructure and the reasons why these practices are killing people. These deaths are largely on account of poisonous gases that accumulate in closed septic tanks, sewer lines and in sewerage treatment facilities. Much of this work could be significantly mechanised and examples of these from other countries have been shared in the podcast. Significantly, all of this work is prohibited under the manual scavenging law, as pointed out in the policy brief Manual Cleaning of Sewers and Septic Tanks.
Faecal Sludge Management as way forward: Construction of more toilets, whether in rural or urban settings without safe and mechanised faecal sludge management practices will only exacerbate the problem of manual scavenging in India. CPR’s sanitation research regularly advocates to states and cities how they can set up well regulated Faecal Sludge Management (FSM) systems with mechanised cleaning and safe handling of faecal sludge to eradicate manual scavenging and unsafe sanitation work. CPR’s study on waste management in smaller cities across South Asia provides critical comparative insights as well as important policy suggestions.