Access to improved water and sanitation, still a challenge for India
Improved drinking water and sanitation access are critical for health and sustainable development, but remain a major developmental challenge, especially in developing countries. Evidence shows that around 25 and 50 percent of the global population lacked access to safely managed drinking water and sanitation in 2020. Approximately 6 percent of the world's population still defecated in the open in 2020, whereas 2.3 billion people lacked basic handwashing facilities in the same year according to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme report. Unsafe drinking water and sanitation are the most common causes of sickness and deaths in developing countries .
Approximately 33 percent or 1/3rd of the South Asian population lacks access to proper sanitation facilities. Around 91 million people do not have access to clean water sources, and more than 746 million people still lack access to safely managed household sanitation facilities in India .
India has made significant progress in achieving Open Defecation Free(ODF) status in many villages under the Swachh Bharat Mission with more than 50 percent of villages having declared themselves ODF Plus by May 2023, indicating sustained ODF status along with the implementation of waste management measures .
However, there are also reports indicating that open defecation is still prevalent in some parts of India, despite the government's declaration of being ODF. For example, the NFHS Report 2019–2021 shows that 19 percent of Indian households do not use any toilet facility and still defecate in the open . This poor water and sanitation situation has serious health implications, resulting in high prevalence of diseases such as cholera, dysentery, and typhoid in the country .
Faecal sludge management, for safe sanitation in India
It is important to have credible and independent monitoring to accurately measure the ODF status and ensure that the progress made is sustained  through ongoing follow-up activities to maintain the ODF status once it is declared .
This article deep dives into the faecal sludge management (FSM) scenario in India and explores factors that can lead to improved FSM and positive sanitation outcomes in the country.
To understand this issue fully we must first define the various terms:
What is faecal sludge?
Faecal sludge comes from onsite sanitation technologies, and includes sludge that has not been transported through a sewer. It is raw or partially digested, as a slurry or semisolid, and results from the collection, storage or treatment of combinations of excreta and blackwater. Examples of onsite technologies include pit latrines, unsewered public ablution blocks, septic tanks and dry toilets.
Technologies used for faecal sludge management
Flush toilet: This has a holding tank for flushing water, and a U-shaped water pipe below the seat that prevents any odour or small pests from escaping. The pour flush toilet does not have an operable flush and depends on water which is poured by hand.
Pit latrines: This flushes excreta into a hole or pit that may be covered or opened periodically. Sometimes two pits may be used side-by-side.
Sewerage system: The piped sewer system consisting of sewer pipes leading up to the treatment plant. This may be designed to collect human waste as well as wastewater generated from households or industries. It may be connected to drains. The sewerage system may have a pumping system along with physical, chemical and biological treatment of wastewater and sewage.
Septic tank: Underground excreta collection system with a settling tank. The effluent may be allowed to seep into the ground with or without treatment or may be connected to a sewerage system. In India, there is generally a lack of sewerage connections and the septic tank has to be emptied and cleaned periodically.
Sludge and Faecal sludge management explained
Sludge management: Involves the proper handling, treatment, and disposal of the solid by-products generated during wastewater treatment. It includes both sewage sludge from municipal wastewater treatment plants and industrial sludge from various manufacturing processes. Effective sludge management is crucial to prevent environmental pollution and ensure public health.
Fecal sludge management: Focuses specifically on the collection, treatment, and disposal of sludge from onsite sanitation systems, such as septic tanks and pit latrines. In developing regions, where centralized sewage systems may be limited, FSM plays a pivotal role in addressing the challenges associated with human waste disposal and preventing the contamination of water sources.
Slum populations and poor faecal sludge management
Around 40 percent of the Indian urban population resides in slums  and these slums are characterised as illegal dwelling units as well as commercial units. These houses lack sanitation facilities and the residents resort to open defecation or use crowded and unclean public toilets or Sulabh Sauchalaya’s. This poor sanitation and hygiene can have a major impact on health and can even lead to growth deformities in young children.
Lack of a robust sewerage and waste collection system could further compound health issues among populations. Faecal sludge is sometimes discharged into open-pits which may further contaminate groundwater. Septic tanks are not designed as per the building codes and laws while the desludging and maintenance is not done on time. The faecal waste dumping without any treatment is also common. The private operators charge higher rates than the ULB Sanitation workers in charge of Fecal Desludging and desludging can be difficult if the area has narrow roads .
Innovations in fecal sludge management and Wastewater Treatment Systems
Advancements in wastewater treatment systems aim to enhance efficiency, sustainability, and environmental impact. Some notable innovations include:
1. Decentralised Treatment Systems: These systems provide localised treatment solutions, reducing the need for extensive sewage infrastructure. Technologies like membrane bioreactors and compact treatment units offer efficient alternatives for various settings.
2. Resource Recovery: Innovations focus on extracting valuable resources from wastewater and sludge. This includes the recovery of energy, nutrients (such as phosphorus and nitrogen), and water for reuse, contributing to a more circular and sustainable approach.
3. Smart Technologies: Integration of sensors, automation, and data analytics improves the monitoring and control of wastewater treatment processes. This enhances efficiency, reduces energy consumption, and allows for real-time adjustments to optimise treatment performance.
4. Nature-Based Solutions: Green infrastructure, such as constructed wetlands and vegetated swales, is employed to mimic natural processes for water purification. These nature-based solutions can complement traditional treatment methods and contribute to overall ecosystem health.
5. Advanced Oxidation Processes: Cutting-edge oxidation techniques, like ozone treatment and ultraviolet irradiation, offer efficient removal of contaminants from wastewater, ensuring higher water quality standards.
Effective sludge management, faecal sludge management, and innovations in wastewater treatment systems are integral components of sustainable sanitation practices. These efforts not only address public health concerns but also contribute to environmental protection and resource conservation. Ongoing research and technological advancements continue to shape the future of wastewater management, aiming for more resilient and environmentally friendly solutions.
Present laws and policies
Various laws that have provided the background framework recognising the need for Faecal Sludge management include:-Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 and Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974.These laws were passed to prevent any individual or any commercial entity discharging any pollutant into the environment. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and the various State Pollution Control Board must prevent and control direct discharge of untreated faecal sludge and septage on land or into water .
According to the Constitution of India, sanitation and water are State subjects (Seventh Schedule, List II – State List, Entries 6 and 17 respectively) . With the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act in 1992, the responsibility for the planning and delivery of urban services, including sanitation, lies with Urban Local Bodies which are the local municipalities
The Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, passed by the Central Government were passed for safe disposal of processed faecal sludge to prevent surface water and groundwater contamination. The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 and Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 were passed to stop the manual handling of human excreta and employment of manual scavengers is a criminal offence. This law made sure that all dry latrines must be converted and bans dry latrines, that is, latrines with no water-seal or flushing mechanism and provides for their conversion into pour/flush latrines.
The Swacch Bharat Mission (SBM) 2014 launched by Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs- Plan to eliminate Open Defecation, elimination of manual scavenging ,ensuring a system for modern and scientific management of solid waste, promote the construction and use of toilets connected to on-site treatment systems. The recommended technology for faecal sludge collection included twin pits, septic tanks, bio-digesters, or bio-tanks in places where it is difficult to connect toilets to sewerage systems and sewage treatment plants. Certain disposal limits are listed out and it is mandated that Effluent Discharge Standards must be adhered to as per the law.
AMRUT (Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation 2015) was launched to improve water supply, sewerage, septage in cities through reforms in urban governance, augmentation of basic infrastructure and establishing a sound institutional framework for effective delivery, through an incremental approach. Mission includes the universal coverage with 135 LPCD supplied along with improved drainage system in all Tier-1 cities.
The National Policy on Faecal Sludge and Septage Management, 2017 further detailed the design of septic tanks, operating procedures fir desludging and the penalty for untreated discharge. According to the guidelines the owner of the property is responsible for the desludging of the septic tank as per the appropriate timelines. It also puts the onus of transportation and disposal of Fecal Sludge on municipal utility or private contractors.
All of this points to the fact that there the government has recognised the urgent need for adapting easy to use and economical faecal sludge management systems in India as the population is understanding the need for following hygienic practices in terms of sludge management.
Conclusions and Recommendations
There is a need for more coordination among the various government departments involved in sanitation. Capacity building of Urban local Bodies(ULB’s) to provide and monitor FSSM is needed as the state government is responsible for regulating the ULBs while the ULB has to adopt a binding resolution for city-wide sanitation plan.
As of now, the sanitation responsibilities are shared by a multitude of government bodies like Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), State Pollution Control Boards, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Urban Local Bodies/Municipalities, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.
Onsite faecal sludge management systems must be recognised as essential to the needs of urban and rural populations. The areas which can be prioritised include urban slums and rural habitations still practising open defecation. Some guidelines are needed to recognise that the septic tank cleaning can address water, sanitation and hygiene needs especially in areas with high population density, poor infrastructure, housing, bad socio- economic condition and unreliable water availability.
Adoption and use of innovations like the mobile faecal sludge desludging units (MFSDU), which have been developed and demonstrated in several cities by several organisations like InchTechase and WASHi, Hyderabad, must be recognised as the way forward and promoted on a nation-wide scale.
- Better access to sanitation could improve the use of toilets and decrease the burden of disease.
- The Indian population will finally realise the human right to safe water and sanitation if the use of new technologies like sludge dewatering is used.
- Awareness campaigns or IEC (Information education and communication) can be conducted to spread the information about the need to maintain hygiene and regular maintenance of septic tanks . Further it can lead to social empowerment in case of discriminated sections and elimination of night soil collection and transport.
- The further cost-cutting can be done in case the sludge is transported to a storage facility and heat treated (incineration/pyrolysis/volarisation) to produce bio-oil and bio-char. The urban local bodies(ULB’s) can incentivise the use of renewable energy in this way.
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Soomrit Chattopadhyay is a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Sustainable Development, Gokhale Institute ,Pune and Chittatosh Khandekar is a Doctoral Scholar associated with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai.