New Delhi: The health of human beings depends on the health of the planet we live on – this is an established fact. The concept of ‘One Health’ recognises this interconnectedness between all people, animals, plants and their shared environment on planet Earth. Ahead of World Environment Day 2023, marked every year on June 5, the NDTV-Dettol Banega Swasth India team spoke with Naina Lal Kidwai, Chair, India Sanitation Coalition and Chair, Rothschild & Co India to explore the theme of Health For All and how it is impossible to achieve this goal if the environment around us is not healthy. We also discussed the progress made under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan to further our Sustainable Development Goals of health, hygiene, sanitation and the road ahead.
Ms Kidwai has authored “Survive or Sink: An Action Agenda for Sanitation, Water, Pollution and Green Finance”, predating the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, with the pandemic behind us, how far has India progressed on this agenda and what has been the impact of the pandemic on our goals? Ms Kidwai lauded the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, a campaign initiated by the Government of India in 2014 to build an Open Defecation Free (ODF) India. She said,
The access to toilets increased from 40 per cent to nearly 99 per cent. The challenge, of course, remains on making sure people use the toilets and use it for what it’s meant for, not what they are possibly using it for at times like storage.
Ms Kidwai said in pre-Covid times, there were campaigns and sessions, particularly in rural India, around handwashing with soap. The messages were plastered around walls in the villages, as a constant reminder about good health. She added,
Good health was about an ODF-free environment and a clean environment is required to ensure kids do not get Diarrhoea. If you think of how nervous and worried we get when one plane goes down, and people are missing; in fact, we had three plane loads worth of children actually dying because of Diarrhoea every day. We have certainly made an impact on nutrition, which derives from good health.
The WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) expert believes that because of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, it was much easier to inculcate hygiene habits during the pandemic.
Further talking about the link between a clean environment and health and what more is required to retain the gains made under the Clean India Mission, Ms Kidwai called to spend money on helping people repair toilets. She said,
30 per cent of our toilets are still single pits in the rural environment. They need to move to twin pit, which is the gold standard. That money has dried up somewhat. And we have to enable access so people can move ahead with ensuring that the toilets are usable. The critical area that we are working at in the India sanitation coalition is around how you treat what goes into the toilet. And even more so in the urban environment. It is setting up Faecal Sludge Treatment Plants (FSTPs).
In 2014, the Government of India launched Namami Gange Programme, an Integrated Conservation Mission, to accomplish the twin objectives of effective abatement of pollution, conservation and rejuvenation of river Ganga. As part of the programme, FSTPs have been established along the river Ganges. Ms Kidwai said,
It was wonderful to hear the director of the Namami Gange Programme talking about how the river dolphins were back and they were counting them. And, what better than having natural habitats return because we’re able to clean things up again. We need funding at every stage from government, corporate, and citizens and all three working together is where it works best.
India is now the most populous nation in the world. With a huge population comes the challenge of good health and hygiene for all and ensuring access to nutritious food and sanitation facilities. Ms Kidwai said,
The demographic dividend we talk about (the ratio of young people to old people in favor of young people) is all very well. But if we have a lot of sick people, it doesn’t matter how many people you have, because, at the end of the day, they are not productive. So health becomes a key factor. And in order to have good health, I think right at the top of that messaging is access to water. We need water to bath, clean, use toilets and drink.
A humongous population also means the amount of waste generated, both solid as well as liquid waste, will be a growing concern. Is India doing enough to tackle the waste crisis and its health and environmental consequences? Ms Kidwai said,
It is really a shame how dirty our environment is. At one level, there is this whole thing about fecal sludge, which I think at least the effort to tackle it is well underway with reasonable success. The other is plastic. What we have is a right royal mess, garbage just everywhere, and garbage beyond being able to be managed. Now this garbage has value.
Ms Kidwai said that what is waste for us, is valuable for others. For example, plastic waste can be used to make roads. But the challenge is the lack of segregation and a chain that waste is segregated at every level. She added,
Segregation at the household level is less critical because we do not have a municipality or a system that knows how to deal with that segregation. There is no point in you and I segregating this when it will get all mixed up later. We need proper chains, right from the way you and I segregate our garbage to when it reaches a road-building activity, where plastic is being compressed into roads. We have corporates that would pay to use this (waste) and we have the ability to see the recycling of PET bottles, for example. But the chains have not been established. And what we get as a result is garbage everywhere.
Will an increase in population exert pressure on the environment and natural resources? What are some of the policy interventions needed to ensure that development is a sustainable one, given the existential crisis we are already in? Ms Kidwai once again emphasised on water, her area of work. She called for conservation for water bodies. She said,
Grey water, which is the runoff from bathwater, is easier to treat. With very light treatment systems which can be homegrown, we show corporates how they can reuse the water for horticulture, local farming and other purposes. So, wastewater reuse is a big message. Conservation of water bodies is another big space. And the third is to make sure that the black water, the sewage, does not go and mess up the good water. And then of course, practising rainwater harvesting, check dams and making sure that you can hold water.
Further talking about women, Ms Kidwai said, it is women who line up to collect water; sadly, girls have to miss their school to get the water. She said,
The fact that we have a program on right now, to deliver water on tap in each home is critical. It liberates women. We need systems and infrastructure to liberate women from being the ones that are bound into the duty of water.
Setting The Agenda For Achieving Sustainable Development Goals, Ms Kidwai shared five key things India needs to prioritise to ensure we survive and don’t sink:
1. Water: Water at every level is stewardship for a corporate. When a corporate looks at being net zero in terms of the way it handles its water so that there’s no effluent. Water to me is key in terms of what we, as India, and possibly the world needs going forward.
2. Hygiene: Under this comes the whole Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan including toilets and waste treatment, making sure that communities understand what they are doing.
3. Delivery of that infrastructure, which makes it possible. How do I deal with garbage? I should know my role. But someone has to also provide the infrastructure that enables that delivery, whether it is sewage treatment or repairing of a toilet, and collection of plastic waste.
4. Ramping up of the Self Hel Groups (SHGs): We don’t have too many successful SHGs at the urban environment. Let us replicate those rural successes. It’s harder in an urban environment because they’re more migrants, you don’t get that strong community. But there are many ways of making it work.
5. It is just the opportunities and urgency of the way we invest in nature, our biodiversity and our forests. People’s lives are closely knit to the forest. So, how do we ensure the investment and ensure there is a water body in every forest.
The way we collaborate as a community, government, corporate, NGO, the best successes and the most durable ones are where everyone works together on that. The second way of making all this happen would be the just transition, said Ms Kidwai.
While signing off, Ms Kidwai said,
It’s about making sure that we don’t leave people behind on this journey. And we think about everyone benefiting from it.
You can listen to the full Banega Swasth India podcast discussion by hitting the play button on the Spotify player embedded above.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.