Urban India flushes toilet waste—directly or indirectly—into its water bodies

While the Swachh Bharat Mission focuses on eliminating open defecation in urban India by constructing toilets, it does not include the construction of additional sewage/ septage treatment facilities.
28 Mar 2016
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Mumbai's Oshiwara river severely polluted with waste (Source: Wikipedia)
Mumbai's Oshiwara river severely polluted with waste (Source: Wikipedia)

Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban), one of the flagship programmes of the current NDA government, focuses on eliminating open defecation in urban India by constructing individual household, community and public toilets. With a budgetary outlay of Rs 9000 Crore for FY 2016-17 (for both rural and urban), which is two and a half times that of the previous year, its aim is to construct over 111 million individual household toilets in rural areas and 10.4 million in urban areas between 2014 and 2019. The mission, however, does not include the construction of additional sewage/ septage treatment facilities.

Only about a third of urban Indian households are connected to piped sewer systems (Census, 2011). A recent report released by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) estimates that there are 522 operational Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) in India with a total capacity of 18,883 MLD. Another 294 STPs are either non-operational or under-construction or proposed.

The operational STPs cover a total of 214 urban centres (CPCB, 2015) that house approximately 142 million people, or almost 38 per cent of India's total urban population (Census, 2011). This implies that the remaining 62 per cent do not have any access to sewage treatment facilities. Additionally, cities with operational STPs have only partial coverage in terms of sewerage network ranging from less than one per cent households in Kot Fatta, Punjab and Kangra, Himachal Pradesh to more than 95 per cent in Mohali, Punjab and Mysore, Karnataka (Census, 2011). 

What does this data mean in the context of Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT)?

Through the SBM (and partly through AMRUT), the government hopes to address the sanitation issues that plague the country by building toilets for those who don't have it. While this may seem like a sure fire way to reduce and gradually end open defecation by 2019, the reality on the ground is quite different. 

Census 2011 housing tables estimate that only 84 million persons (about 22 per cent of India's total urban population) within these 214 urban centres that have operational STPs, are connected to piped sewer systems. This means that even where treatment capacities are available, network coverage is limited. While this still does not give us a sense of how much waste is actually treated before disposal, it is clear that there is only limited STP infrastructure in urban areas. What's worse is that a 2013 CPCB study on the performance of STPs under the National River Conservation Directorate (NRCD) showed that they all aren't fully functional—capacity utilisation was only around 66 per cent. 

All this information on sewerage and STPs still leaves us with a huge gap in understanding what happens to fecal sludge/ septage from on-site systems (septic tanks and pit latrines) that constitute almost 50 per cent of individual household toilets in urban India. They get filled over a period of time and need to be emptied and treated before disposal. Many towns now have honey suckers for emptying and conveying septage. However, given that there are only a handful of septage treatment facilities in the country, it has been observed that the fecal sludge/ septage is mostly dumped without any treatment into the nearest open drains, fields, rivers, landfill sites, etc. With limited sewerage coverage across India, it can be assumed that many of the toilets constructed under SBM will belong to this category of on-site systems.

AMRUT provides for sewerage and septage facilities. However, unlike SMB-Urban, it is not a universal coverage programme. Only the following are under its purview:

    • Class I cities (cities a with population more than 1 lakh)
    • Capital cities that are not class I
    • Heritage cities classified under HRIDAY scheme
    • Thirteen cities and towns on the stem of the main rivers with a population above 75,000 and less than 1 lakh
    • Ten cities from hill states, islands and tourist destinations 

So while citizens of already deprived smaller cities might get access to toilets under SBM, there is a high possibility that that much of the toilet waste they generate will find its way into the environment—mostly surface water bodies and groundwater—without any treatment, either directly or indirectly. 

It would benefit the SBM to give the required importance to the proper treatment and safe disposal of sewage/ septage. Until then, a large portion of the allocated funds will only continue to be flushed down the toilet.


Geetika Anand is a Consultant with the Practice Team at Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) and works on urban planning, housing, water and sanitation. Vishnu MJ is an Associate with the IIHS, and works on the issues of urban transportation, water and sanitation.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect those of India Water Portal.

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