The World Bank estimates that more than a fifth of all communicable diseases in India (21%) are caused by contaminated water. According to a study by the Indian Nitrogen Group, a task force of scientists tracking the issue, the amount of reactive nitrogen in a bulk of the water bodies in India is already twice the limit prescribed by WHO.
The study found that the Nitrogen pollution from untreated sewage outstrips nitrogen pollution from the Indian farmer’s urea addiction (they use more urea, as it is subsidized).
Swachh Bharat Abhiyan a problem?
Under the SBA, toilets are being built in mission mode and there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that there has been a measurable reduction in the number of people defecating in the open, which stood at over 500 million or half the population a few years ago.
Ironically, India’s latest, largest and most significantly scaled attempt at cleanliness is likely to add to the problem. Under the mission, in the past four years alone, over nine crore toilets have been constructed. Of these, only 60 lakh are in urban areas, where one assumes they are connected to some sort of sewage system.
A study done by the Centre for Science and Environment in 30 cities in Uttar Pradesh found that only 28% of toilets in these cities were connected to a sewage system. The rest will be generating fecal sludge, sewage and septage which has no place to go, simply getting dumped, polluting land, surface and ground water and killing our rivers and ponds. According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), 63% of urban sewage flowing into rivers is untreated.
The CPCB’s website admits that the gap between sewage generated in urban areas and capacity for treating that is over 78%. Up to a third of the installed sewage treatment capacity is fully or partly dysfunctional. Even where the plants are working, many are not working at full capacity, because the infrastructure needed to feed the raw sewage into the treatment plant (a network of drains, sewers and pumping stations) is inadequate or incomplete.
Smart Cities Mission
Even though it is arguably one of the major health hazards faced by the people — in cities, in particular, sewage and human waste is simply not on the agenda. Here are the statistics: the 99 cities in the ‘Smart Cities’ mission, which are collectively spending INR 2 lakh crore over five years (from 2015), only 2.4% of the money is going to be spent on waste management. Storm water drainage (which only removes short-term excess water during heavy downpours and doesn’t really add to waste management) gets a higher share of 2.5%.
AMRUT and other schemes
Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) covers a much larger spread — 500 ‘mission cities’ across the country. Of these, only 217 pitched for a sewage treatment plant as an AMRUT project. Of these, in the last four years, only four have been completed, according to a reply filed in the Lok Sabha. Even these numbers are misleading. Of the 212 schemes, as many as 189 are accounted for by just Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat. The rest have no plans.
Access to water According to NITI Aayog’s composite water management index report released in 2018, 75% of households do not have access to drinking water on premises, 70% households lack piped water (potable or otherwise) and as many as 20 cities will effectively use up all available water resources by 2020.
Sewage and waste need to come centre stage in our policy debates. Elections may be fought on ‘bijli, sadak, paani’ (power, roads, water) but no election is fought over naali (drain). Unless that happens, we run the real risk of eventually either choking or being poisoned by our own waste.