UNICEF commends Swachh Bharat’s effect on India’s soil and groundwater pollution: What’s next?

A study by UNICEF based on three ground reports has found that non-open defecation free villages are 11.25 times more prone to have their groundwater contaminated by fecal matter and 2.68 times more likely to have household drinking water contaminated. It also found evidence of higher soil pollution, which leads to food contamination, in these areas.

The study titled “Environmental impact of the Swachh Bharat Mission on Water, Soil, and Food” was accompanied by a separate but related report by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) which hailed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet scheme for mobilising approximately Rs 23,000 crore, for creating awareness on sanitation in rural areas.

The BMGF study titled “Assessment of the reach and value of IEC activities under Swachh Bharat Mission (Grameen)” found: An average person living in rural India was exposed to between 2,500–3,300 SBM related messages over the last five years.

It also concluded that 22% of the spending was by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDWS), and 35% by the State Sanitation Departments.

Groundwater samples from villages in three states—Bihar, West Bengal, and Odisha—went into the first study which also found open defecation-free (ODF) villages were 1.13 times less likely to have their soil contaminated, and nearly 1.5 times less likely to have food contaminated.

But how many villages are ODF due to SBM?

According to data from the large-scale National Family Health Survey (NFHS), Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan, accounted for nearly half of the households without toilets and defecating in the open in 2015-16.

A study by Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE), published in January this year, found that 44% of the rural population in these four states still defecate in the open.

As per data from the SBM portal, however, three of these states are either fully or largely ODF with 100% sanitation coverage of rural household (raion of households to toilets), except for Bihar.

The country is close to attaining the long-sought and desperately important goal of universal sanitation coverage, according to SBM, with 27 out of India’s 36 states and Union territories now ODF, and 98.6% of Indian households with access to toilets.

The UNICEF study puts down 66.7% of food sources contaminated with fecal matter in Bihar. The corresponding figures for Odisha and Bengal are 57.1% and 47.1%, respectively.

Also read: A nation of litterbugs: Why Swachh Bharat will always remain an unfulfilled dream

Greenlight for SBM 2.0?

Questions regarding the extent and impact of SMB have been seemingly put to rest by the two latest third-party reports that released on World Environment Day (June 4) this year, in praise of the government’s political will to pursue this sanitation drive.

A World Health Organization study in 2018 said that 3 lakh lives would be saved annually, once 100% ODF is achieved, a press release from the newly-created Jal Shakti Ministry claimed.

Yasmin Ali Haque, the UNICEF representative in India, said that children are acting as key agents of change. “Now 96.5% toilets are being used regularly. We have seen children are eager to change things. The Swachh Bharat Mission has to be continued and sustained.”

Also read: The first pulse: Children kick off Extinction Rebellion, which side of history will you be on?

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was one of the key missions of NDA 1.0, since its launch in 2014; no other government in the past has been able to take issues of sanitation and cleanliness the way it was addressed under this mission. 

But Nalini Shekar, founder-director of Hasiru Dala, tells The Hindu, “The campaign should go beyond a visibly clean city to a city that has good policies on implementation of waste management.”

“However, the campaign has definitely created an environment of change,” she adds. Hasiru Dala helps waste pickers become entrepreneurs and supports 33 dry waste collection centres across Bengaluru, which ranked 216 out of 485 cities in 2018’s Swachh Survekshan survey.

Waste management and water crisis should be the focus

But open sanitation is not the only threat to soil and groundwater pollution. Rapid urbanisation and gentrification are equally responsible for contaminating our rivers and ultimately the drinking water table.

Informal recycling of e-waste, open burning of solid waste, combustion of coal, and ship-breaking activities cause massive soil contamination in most Indian metropolitan cities. Moreover, unskilled masonry often leads to faulty on-site fecal sludge management systems (like septic tanks), further contributing to groundwater pollution.

Solid waste management in cities needs to be on the agenda-setting list, starting with the ban on PCBs (synthetic organic chemicals used in electrical equipment, adhesives, paints etc) and renewing the call to ban plastics.

Also read: Will the ban on single-use plastics save India from environmental destruction?

Last year, India set a target on World Environment Day with PM Modi vowing to stop the use of all single-use plastics in the country by 2022. Dealing a huge blow to the mission, over 20 states (including pioneer Maharashtra) recently missed the deadline for submitting their action plans on the disposal of plastic waste to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). They now face fines to the tune of Rs 1 crore from the National Green Tribunal.

In April 2016, India said manufacturing and importing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) will be banned after December 31, 2025. Ensuring better compliance by enacting these policies into laws can help SBM achieve higher targets in terms of cleanliness.

Also read: Waste and brand audit exposes top local and international brands in Bengaluru

Experts suggest that cities could perhaps benefit from approaching the waste management crisis in a decentralised manner at all stages, from end-to-end segregation of waste at the source to reducing landfill to the minimum extent possible, while incorporating waste pickers into the programmes and promoting Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).

Also read: Reinventing the toilet: Using technology to transform sanitation

Technological solutions like robots that cleans Kerala’s rivers and sewer-cleaning machines to supplant the degrading and casteist practice of manual scavenging, must be adopted widely. Policies have to be followed up with awareness drives and a strong communication strategy; simply installing fixtures like smart bins has proven ineffective in Indian cities.

Waste collection has to be ramped up and regularised as well. Above all, the key is to bring in more governance into payment systems and the tendering process of waste management services.

Third but last country in terms of water quality

On Wednesday, June 5, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, Minister of the newly-formed ministry, which is expected to integrate the Drinking Water and Sanitation Ministry, noted that the sanitation mission had affected all aspects of environment as well as people’s health and dignity and would “continue to positively impact people’s lives for a long time to come

With the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan scheduled to officially complete its mission of an open defecation free India by October 2 this year, there is uncertainty regarding what lies ahead for the Centre’s flagship sanitation scheme.

In the event that policymakers decide to run a second phase, which in all likelihood it will, the focus needs to be on effective implementation and shift towards ensuring clean drinking water for all.

Studies showing that 84% of rural homes have no access to piped water, while more than 70% of the country’s water is contaminated, painting a dire picture that is abetted by droughts and toxic rivers flowing in several states.

According to a NITI Aayog report published in June 2018, more than 600 million people in India face high to extreme water crisis, placing the country 120th out of 122 countries in the water quality index.

Also read: Antibiotic pollution in rivers can be the cause of global public health disaster by 2050

A second phase of Swachh Bharat may also be key to reducing contamination, as the UNICEF study suggests. The yet-to-be formalised ‘Nal se Jal’ scheme aims to provide piped drinking water to every rural home by 2024 and may overshadow SBM 2.0, experts believe.

Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius

EnvironmentPollutionSwachh Bharat