Saturday, January 26, 2013

Drinking Water & Sanitation in rural India

Poor sanitation and lack of toilets cost India nearly three trillion rupees because of hygiene-related illness resulting in poor productivity. The problem is not only economic but also of human dignity. The practice of manual scavenging is the worst violation of the individual’s right to life with dignity. Providing safe drinking water is another major challenge for the government. Having 4% of world water and supporting 15% of world population is an arithmetic the magnanimity of which even a lay man can understand.

It is estimated that 1 in every 10 deaths in India in villages, is linked to poor sanitation and hygiene. The Improved sanitation facilities in rural India stood at 23% in 2010, according to a World Bank report published in 2012 as compared to 58% in the urban areas. Overall in India roughly 72% lack basic sanitation facilities. The question arises what comprises the definition of ‘basic sanitation’.  Basic sanitation is described as having access to facilities for the safe disposal of human waste (feces and urine), as well as having the ability to maintain hygienic conditions, through services such as garbage collection, industrial/hazardous waste management, and waste water treatment and disposal. Residing in urban localities we might wonder what the big deal in these services is, but let me put before you some raw fact regarding the services we have taken for granted-“54% of India defecates in the open, 50% wash their hand with soap after contact with excreta, 30% rural households have latrine facilities, of these 64% have no drainage”.

Sewerage was introduced in India a few years after the advent of British, in 1870 in Kolkata. Yet the current scenario is such that in India out of over 4800 town/cities only 232 have the sewerage system and that too partially. A major flagship program of the government has been the “Total Sanitation Campaign” which has the Nirmal Gram Puraskar Scheme to encourage Panchayti Raj Institutions. Sikkim has become the first state to receive this award, with Kerala following.

Of the various studies conducted by UNICEF, WHO and other national and international bodies one major point which has emerged and agreed upon by all is the unparalleled role of women in promoting sanitation. Almost one out of two persons lives without toilet. Children from female-headed families were found much more conscious and concerned about personal hygiene. The problems suffered by the female fold were manifold making them silent sufferers of a very much solvable problem .Rural women suffer more from men from the indignity of being forced to defecate in the open, at risk of assault and rape. Due of the lack of toilets in schools in rural areas, boys and girls feel ashamed and experience difficulties, which often leads of higher drop-out rates particularly of girl students. 

Manual scavenging, a term that is the nadir of human dignity, yet the very practice is far from termination sadly in our very own India. The coming of the law of 1993(The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines [Prohibition] Act) as late as it may sound is an unenforced one. The biggest blot being the disputed numbers, of state governments claiming 116 thousand while reports putting the numbers at 1.3 million. The 1993 law defined a manual scavenger as “a person engaged in or employed for manually carrying human excreta”. The 2012 bill definition is fittingly more elaborate and inclusive, and includes “a person engaged or employed... for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an unsanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrine is disposed of, or on a railway track...”

But the advantages of the expanded definition are completely undone by the proviso that a person who cleans “excreta with the help of such devices and using such protective gear, as the Central Government may notify in this behalf, shall not be deemed to be a “manual scavenger”’. No such proviso was there even in the 1993 law. It deliberately introduces a huge escape route: employers may merely issue gloves and protective clothing, which the Central Government notifies as sufficient, and this would be sufficient to allow the demeaning practice to persist.

The document about manual scavenging will remain incomplete without the mention of the BADAUN model. Badaun is a district in Uttar Pradesh where a multi-pronged approach was used - eradication, rehabilitation and SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunity, threat) analysis. The various sections of the society merged together to completely eradicate this practice.

Kerala’s E-toilets are a major boost towards the efforts of providing sanitation facility to all. Well you heard it right E-toilet! it works on total auto-mode: The insertion of  coin opens the door for the user, switches on the light and even directs the user with audio commands, programmed to flush 1.5 liters water for under 3 minute usage and 4.5 liters thereafter. They can be programmed to clean the platform after every 5 or 10 persons use the toilet. These could be tracked via GPS and other mapping facilities.

Water scenario is continuously worsening thanks to the rapidly increasing population, rising demand for irrigation, rapid urbanization, electricity generation, global warming and erratic rainfall. Besides absence of a concrete water policy and dolling out huge subsidies to the agricultural and industrial sector has cost India dearly.65000 villages are still “no source” villages and estimated 200 million people access unhygienic water.185 districts in India have polluted water containing nitrates, fluorides, chlorides, arsenic, zinc, iron and salinity. In view of the increasing problem of water quality and resultant health hazards, it is necessary to institutionalize water quality monitoring and surveillance systems. India’s per capita storage capacity is currently at 190 cubic meters which is very less compared to china’s 2486 and Brazil’s 3388. A significant increase in incomplete irrigation projects have escalated their costs by up to 1000% (thousand) and more. The government has finally awaken to the uncalled for situation and come up with Draft Water Policy, 2012 which inter alia emphasizes on government’s role as a service provider rather than creator, doing away with subsidies.

According to Shree Rajendra Singh of Tarun Bharat Sangh,” Water is an endowment of nature to mankind and is not a property of the state or any individual and is never a private asset”, something which all should remember. He insists on compensation for dislocated people at par with those benefited with a certain percentage coming by imposition of taxes on the benefited class.

All said and done, you might be prompted to lay 90% blame on the government of India, but we must keep the following points in mind. During the initial years improvement in agriculture was a major requirement as such it comprised of 22% of the budgetary grants. Next the drinking water and sanitation also received Rs two hundred billion under the TSC (total sanitation campaign). But the problem lies in implementation of these monetary grants for maximum utilization by the public. Integration and coordination at all levels of governance and administration is the need of the hour. You might construct for them a toilet and they might agree to use it but getting rid of age old habits is not easy, it is here that the enforcement becomes difficult. India might a emerging economy engaging in nuclear tests, modern warfare- air-crafts, missiles, tanks but it cannot become a developed nation until it provides its citizen a life with dignity under article 21 which it is supposed to guarantee and basic housing facility under the universal declaration of human rights. The task might be a herculean one but efforts in all levels of implementation could go a long way forward in increasing the economy and productivity, decreasing mortality rate and health costs. These facilities are the bare minimum a citizen expects from the ruler of the land. If we, as engineers device innovative solutions, we as doctors preach compulsory sanitation, we as lawyers file PILs, we as citizens use the instrument of RTI, we can expect a change.

The TSC is currently being implemented at scale in 606 districts of 30 states/Union Territories (UTs). As can be seen from Figure 1, after sluggish progress throughout the 1980s and 1990s, rural Sanitation coverage (individual household latrines) has nearly tripled from approximately 22 percent in 2001 to 61 percent in 2009 and 65 percent in 2010, post-TSC and -NGP.

Courtesy: Government of India, Department of Drinking Water Supply Accessed in March 2010

1. Kurukshetra magazine
3. The Hindu,
4. UNICEF reports,
5. TSC report_volume 1,

Rajan Agarwal wants to raise awareness about the problems related to water, that India is facing currently. You can write back to him with your comments  at


  1. thank you sir for your valuable comments, these work as a booster for future write-ups

  2. Dear Rajan,

    The monitoring system of the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) is flawed. It measures "what those in the administration in charge of the TSC report to have been executed", which does reflect how many toilets actually have been constructed and are still in use. Actual coverage figures based on different surveys including the Census of India, reveals that rural sanitation coverage is only about 31% and not 68% as presented by the TSC. See: A hypothesis on the monitoring system in India’s Total Sanitation Campaign by Andrés Hueso,

    Cor Dietvorst, Programme Officer, Global Team
    Information Specialist and Editor E-Source
    IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre
    PO Box 82327
    2508 EH The Hague
    The Netherlands

    Tel.: +31-70-3044014
    Fax: +31-70-3044044
    Twitter: @dietvorst

    1. Sir,
      I felt privileged that you had gone through this article and pointed out the flaw with the TSC. The information provided by you is fully correct. I had come across this flaw in the following article:
      the reason for the flaw being the eagerness of state governments to project their state as the cleanest in terms of sanitation among others but in the process evading the ground reality. I eventually concluded that it was easier to construct the toilets for the rural and semi urban masses but the major task lay in forming the culture of using it. In this regard I would like to praise your organization for implementing the SSHE project in rural primary schools and pre-schools, which would go a long way in establishing a sanitation culture in India.

  3. good Article. Helped me with few points.

  4. Good work…unique site and interesting too… keep it up…looking forward for more updates.

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