Building toilets is only the first and perhaps the easiest step towards ‘clean India’

Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) director general Sunita Narain questions the government’s claim of being an open defecation free nation by February, 2019. According to her building toilets is only the first – and perhaps the easiest – step towards attaining a ‘clean India’ status.

“It cannot be seen as the ultimate yardstick of success. What happens to the immense amounts of solid and liquid waste that these millions of new toilets would generate? If human excreta is not handled carefully – safely disposed of or reused – it will add to our health burden and negate all the work done to build the toilets,” she added.

The CSE-Down To Earth analysis gives a taste of exactly how monumental the problem would be: One lakh tonne of excreta every day produced by 720 million people using 144 million household toilets – just to give a sense of scale, more than 5,200 trucks would be needed every day to transport this amount of excreta! CSE has based this estimate on the standard calculation that on an average, an individual produces 128 gram of excreta every day.

Says Sushmita Sengupta, programme manager, rural water-waste management, CSE: “This could turn out to be a far bigger problem than that of open defecation. If not managed properly, the mind-boggling amounts of waste that these toilets will spew forth close to people’s homes can severely contaminate the land and water sources.”

“It is clear that toilets must be built keeping in mind the safe disposal and reuse of waste. Without this, we will not get the benefits of safe sanitation — the reduction in disease burden because of safe disposal of human waste,” Narain adds. “This is the challenge that we must keep our focus on.”It was found that the rush to achieve targets has led to false claims.

The CSE-Down To Earth analysis has found anomalies in the way the toilets have been constructed. Poorly designed and built, many of these toilets have added to the burden. For instance, in those built in flood-prone areas, the stored faeces pose a major pollution and health hazard during monsoons. The high density of pit latrines and poorly made and maintained septic tanks can render the shallow aquifer water unfit for drinking because of nitrate and bacterial contamination.

Says Narain: “Post-2019, the sanitation questions in India will be different, and yet the same. The challenge will remain: how to ensure that the toilets continue to be maintained and used and how to make sure that human excreta is safely handled. If this is not done, the massive investment of counting toilets could go waste — worse, governments would now believe that their task is done and priorities will change”.

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