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Why The National Urban Faecal Sludge and Septage Management Policy Could Be a Game Changer For Urban Sanitation In India

With India’s urban population expected to rise to 600 million by 2031, a proper policy is needed to treat faecal sewage to tackle health and environmental concerns that lack of proper handling of sewage poses

Faecal sludge management
  • The new policy will address the need of urban faecal sewage management
  • Only 37 per cent of India's daily sewage is treated
  • The policy will help civic bodies follow a proper set of rules

The city of Trichy in Tamil Nadu can be boastful of being one of India’s cleanest cities, as it maintained its consistency of being ranked as one of the top 10 cleanest cities, twice in consecutive years in Swachh Sarvekshan, a survey done by Ministry of Urban Development to rank cities as per their cleanliness, sanitation and waste management. Trichy’s garbage free surroundings and abundance of household and public toilets have helped it rank as one of southern India’s cleanest cities. But even the city of Trichy was not without its set of problems, the main issue being the absence of an underground sewage system for nearly 10,000 households, as estimated by Trichy’s Public Works Department. Faecal waste from these households was stored in septic tanks and waste collection trucks would collect the waste occasionally for disposal.

In February 2017, work began on the construction of a Faecal Sludge Treatment Plant (FSTP) at an investment of Rs. 2 crores. The plant will ensure that faecal sludge can be properly treated for composting purposes and water from it can be reused for irrigation. But Trichy is an exception. Many urban areas in India lack in both proper sewage systems and faecal sludge treatment facilities and the absence of these for decades have resulted in water pollution, excess water usage and water wastage.

The nationwide sanitation movement of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has been successful in not just eradicating open defecation from numerous towns and villages across India, but is also creating a national consciousness in terms of sanitation and cleanliness. But the mere task of building toilets will do India no good, unless a national policy for treating sanitation waste is adopted at the earliest. Untreated sanitary waste has been dumped recklessly in our rivers and lakes for years, resulting in rivers like Ganga and Yamuna facing severe pollution crisis.

The National Urban Faecal Sludge and Septage Management (FSSM) Policy is a welcome move on behalf of the Ministry of Urban Development. The policy will lay stress on the setting up of faecal sewage treatment plants in cities and urban local bodies, as well as address the restructuring of sewerage systems in urban India. FSSM also takes care of a policy lacuna at the national level to address gaps in urban sanitation and lays down a clear vision and objectives to deal with faecal sludge and septage.

Understanding the terminologies

Faecal sludge is raw or partially digested combination of excreta which comes from pit latrines and septic tanks. The physical, chemical and biological composition of faecal sludge depends on the duration of storage, temperature and soil condition.

Septage is liquid and solid material that is pumped from a septic tank, cesspool, or even onsite treatment facility. Septic tanks retain 60% – 70% of the solids, oil, and grease that enter it. Septage is host to several disease causing organisms and is severely contaminated.

A Septic Tank is an underground watertight tank that treats sewage by a combination of solids settling and anaerobic digestion. The effluents are to be discharged into soak pits, drain fields or small-bore sewers, and the solid/septage has to be pumped out periodically.

A Sewerage system is a network of sewers, which collect sewage and sends it to a sewage pumping station for further treatment.

Existing Situation in India

Treatment capacity is available for only 37 per cent of the 62,000 million litres of sewage generated in urban India daily, thus creating a wide gap between sewage generated and treated. Untreated sewage is dumped into rivers or lakes, thus polluting the environment even more.

Only 37 per cent of the generated sewage is treated in urban India

Only 37 per cent of the generated sewage is treated in urban India

The urban metros in India have a planned sewerage network with underground pipelines, pumping stations and treatment plants. Under the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), it is envisaged that nearly 80% of these 7.90 million household toilets will meet their sanitation needs through newly-built individual household toilets and the remaining 20% (or nearly 1.6 million HHs) will rely on existing or newly-built community toilets.

80% of 7.90 million household toilets will meet their sanitation needs through newly-built toilets

80% of 7.90 million household toilets will meet their sanitation needs through newly-built toilets

India’s 7,000 smaller urban towns do not have any existing sewerage system since the amount of financial expenditure, skilled operators and electro-mechanical maintenance required is unlikely to be implemented anytime soon. Nearly 62.5 per cent of wastewater in urban India receives partial or no treatment.

Most of the sewer systems in Tier II and III cities of urban India date back to the 1970 or 1980s. These sewer systems often lead the sewage directly to rivers or lakes. Low availability of Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) and low treatment capacities means that urban civic bodies often don’t want to undergo the trouble of collecting faecal sewage and transporting it to a treatment plant, said Dr. B. Sengupta, Former Additional Member Secretary, Ministry of Urban Development.

Gaps in Urban Sanitation

Implementation of on-site sanitation services remains a problematic area in most Indian cities. Data related to availability of sanitation services, collection of faecal sewage and sewage treatment remains unknown to most urban bodies. Municipal corporations in many Indian cities have been known to employ manual scavengers to clean septic tanks, a practice deemed illegal by the Supreme Court. Inappropriate tank sizes are another problem which occur due to lack of defined norms with regard to tank sizes.

Other problems such as lack of infrastructure among municipal bodies, lack of proper sewage treatment facilities and poor awareness among people on how untreated faecal sewage poses health risks has created several gaps in urban sanitation. A well-defined FSSM policy will ensure that all these gaps are issued in wider interest towards urban sanitation development.

Why a dedicated FSSM Policy is needed?

In urban India, capacities and resources are limited when it comes to cleaning of pits and septic tanks. The Central Pollution Control Board estimates that out of the 816 municipal STPs listed across India, 522 are operational, 79 STPs are non-operational, 145 STPs are under construction and 70 STPs are proposed.

Out of the 816 municipal STPs listed across India, 522 are operational

Out of the 816 municipal STPs listed across India, 522 are operational

The urban households constructing toilets under the Swachh Bharat Mission will have pit latrines and septic tanks where sewerage systems are not available. The treatment of faecal waste produced by such households will pose a huge challenge in the coming few years.

As per WaterAid India’s report titled ‘Faecal Sludge Management,’ municipalities are required to adhere to the guidelines of Municipal Waste (Handling and Management) Rules, 2000. Unfortunately, neither the rules of 2000 nor any other existing legislation states anything with regard to the emptying of faecal sludge and its treatment. This has led to municipalities across India not giving importance to the treatment of faecal sludge and often dumping them into water bodies without treatment.

A dedicated FSSM policy will ensure that onsite sanitation systems are functional. With proper engineering, design and implementation, this policy will manage the treatment of faecal sludge in an environmentally safe manner.

The Union Government’s View on FSSM

It has been duly recognised by the Ministry of Urban Development that the objectives of the Swachh Bharat Mission cannot be fulfilled without a dedicated FSSM Policy. Management of faecal sludge in urban areas should go hand-in-hand with the installation of toilets before the gap between production of sludge and its treatment becomes too wide to exist. The newly devised policy will provide proper outcomes as the directions to be taken are well defined. The policy will allow the MoUD to set proper guidelines with regard to setting up of sewage treatment plants, treatment of faecal sewage in urban India, which municipal bodies can follow during implementation.

Faecal sludge management is an issue which the new FSSM policy prioritises and with its implementation, urban bodies can hope for better treatment of faecal waste, as well as proper addressing of other urban waste related concerns.

This policy will ensure that all urban local bodies and civic bodies become accountable for improper handling of faecal sewage in India. Given the pace at which toilets are being constructed in urban India under the Swachh Bharat Mission, the introduction of this policy is timely and will help in the management of faecal sludge in urban India, said Arvind Mudgal, Special Officer, Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban).

Also Read: Wastewater Recycling: A Multi-Billion Dollar Opportunity For India To Avoid The Impending Water Crisis

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