Laws are good, implementation not so much

Despite the existence of laws to carefully dispose of faecal sludge in Tamil Nadu, they are not implemented effectively.
Faecal sludge gets illegally dumped in a water body.
Faecal sludge gets illegally dumped in a water body.

As a child back in the village, I had always cherished the sight of clear water running below bridges. But moving to Chennai, the car windows are always drawn up and the car zooms across bridges in a bid to avoid the stench emanating from the river. This begs the question, why are we in urban India so deprived of a clean environment?

We live in an age where adequate importance is being given to toilets. However, what happens after one uses the toilet? Where does it all go? Ideally, the toilets are either connected to the underground sewer (off-site sanitation system) or pit latrines or septic tanks (on-site sanitation system) from which the waste is taken to the sewage or septage treatment plants. Does this really happen?

Urban India with a whopping population of 377 million sends out only 30 percent of the sewage or septage from its toilets to the treatment plants. An analysis by Indiaspend says that the remaining three-fourths of the sewage or septage is illegally dumped into our lakes, rivers and seas polluting our water bodies. So why is this rampant pollution of our environment being ignored? Is it the lack of legal instruments and monitoring mechanisms to control the pollution, or is it the poor implementation of existing laws?

To start with, let us look at the laws in Tamil Nadu which are in place for safe containment, collection and transportation of faecal sludge.

The TN District Municipalities Act, 1920 and 12 Municipal Corporation Acts have rules and bye-laws in place for construction, operation and maintenance of toilets, sewer systems and septic tanks. The Tamil Nadu Public Health Act, 1939, is a significant Act which exercises rules for the prevention of sewage or septage from containment systems or insanitary toilets to be let out into open spaces or water bodies, prohibits practices of open defecation, and further issues directions for the  closure of unfit containment systems or insanitary toilets violating the laws. With respect to toilets and on-site systems, there are Acts which enforce the safe regulation. In any case, despite the existence of these legal instruments, a deeper question arises on the implementation of these laws.

The enforcement of many of these rules does not hold good at the field-level due to practical difficulties involved in identifying insanitary toilets and retrofitting them. The minimal fines starting from Rs 30 to be imposed for violation of laws are seldom put into practice. In terms of collection or desludging, the Central Public Health And Environmental Engineering Organisation's Manual on Sewerage and Treatment, 2013 advises regular desludging of septic tanks. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 recommends the use of mechanical devices and safety gears for desludging.

A further look at the transport and emptying of faecal sludge component denotes neglect with respect to legal structures. Although the Act says that only authorised vehicles or carts with adequate covers and licences are allowed to collect faecal sludge from households; regulatory practices for checking on their safe disposal seem to be absent. Particularly, there is an absence of any designated monitoring authority to prevent disposal of faecal sludge into the water bodies or open lands. As a result of these gaps, there is a rise in the unregulated private sector operating under unsatisfactory conditions causing harm to the environment and public health.

While there are gaps existing in the current legal instruments which need to be plugged, the bigger issue, however, is the poor implementation mechanisms. These can be attributed to fragmented laws, lack of awareness on the negative impacts of improper sanitation and an inadequate number of existing sanitary personnel solely dedicated to implementing sanitary works.

Therefore, it is necessary that the central government and Tamil Nadu State government which are now in the process of seriously implementing the National Policy on Faecal Sludge Management and Operative Guidelines for Septage Management for Urban and Rural local bodies in Tamil Nadu, 2014 respectively, should work towards creating awareness among all stakeholders which will go a long way in the implementation of these policies/guidelines.

This is one of a series of blog posts written by experts from the Tamil Nadu Urban Sanitation Support Programme (TNUSSP). The TNUSSP supports the Government of Tamil Nadu (GoTN) and select cities in making improvements along the entire urban sanitation value chain. The TNUSSP is being implemented by a consortium of organisations led by the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS), in association with CDD Society, Gramalaya and Keystone Foundation. You can find out more about TNUSSP at http://muzhusugadharam.co.in/tnussp/

 

 

 

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