Moving beyond toilets to faecal sludge management

National Faecal Sludge and Septage Management (NFSSM) Alliance has launched ‘India for the World’, a comprehensive infographic web platform that highlights India’s FSSM journey and spotlights the credible work of key states towards safe and sustainable sanitation practices.

NFSSM is a collaborative body that drives the discourse on faecal sludge and septage management (FSSM) forward in India. It comprises 30 plus organisations and individuals across India and works in collaboration with the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs and the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation under the Jal Shakti Ministry.

The launch of ‘India for the World’ web platform was launched to coincide with the ‘World Toilet Day’ that was observed on Friday this year.

This comes on the back of India’s Swachh Bharat Mission, both urban and rural, wherein after working in a mission mode, the government has declared that it has constructed 10,61,04,565 (10.61 crore) toilets till date. However, there has been constant criticism about the actual use of those toilets for multiple reasons, including availability of water and then management of faecal sludge or sewage.

Therefore, the question of FSSM has been a constant question of debate all over. A member of the NFSSM Alliance, Sakshi Gudwani, who is a Senior Programme Officer with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said, “India has made tremendous progress in improving access to toilets and is now prioritising treatment of human faecal waste. Many states and cities have implemented innovative and scalable solutions for faecal sludge management and inclusive sanitation service delivery.”

“It is imperative that the learning from this progress are well-documented and disseminated to other states and cities within the country to replicate and for the world to learn from the great work that is happening in India. ‘India for the World’ aims to serve as a platform to share learning on implementing effective FSSM and inclusive sanitation service delivery solutions,” Gudwani added.

As much as 60 per cent of India’s urban population today depends on onsite sanitation systems, which require dedicated planning for FSSM. ‘India for the World’ is intended to be a knowledge resource for city planners, municipal functionaries, elected representatives, state decision-makers, civil society organisations, private-sector players, funders, international sector players etc. to understand the developments in FSSM and the opportunities it presents, a statement said.

However, all said and done, it all boils down to getting solutions for decentralised faecal sludge management, not just in urban but rural areas, too.

Dinesh Mehta, who is a member of the NFSSM Alliance, gave examples of two small towns — Wai and Sinnar in Maharashtra. They have both achieved ODF++ status with the implementation of FSSM plans.

An innovative aspect of the plan is scheduled de-sludging on a three-year cycle. Before the cities implemented scheduled de-sludging, most of the septic tanks were de-sludged only once in 8-10 years or when they became completely full and overflowed,” Mehta, who is the Executive Director of the Centre for Water and Sanitation.

Since households did not bear the environmental cost of infrequent cleaning until the tanks overflowed, they treated cleaning of septic tanks more as an emergency service, rather than as a regular maintenance service, Mehta said, adding, “It is now, that for the first time in India an effort to de-sludge septic tanks regularly, is being provided as a municipal service by both these cities through engagement with private sector.”

The best part of the approach by the two towns is that it is inclusive as it covers all properties — including those in slums and low-income communities. The payment is linked to sanitation tax, which is a part of property tax and thus equitable, with poor households paying much less.

A mobile-based application called SaniTab or SaniTrack is set-up to capture information of on-site sanitation systems and to monitor the performance of private sector operators, while the scheduled services are being provided.

“Dedicated faecal sludge treatment facilities have been set up by both these cities, where the collected septage is treated and the by-products are reused for landscaping and urban forest for women self-help groups,” Mehta said.