Swachh Bharat sans Swachh cities? Post-toilet crisis scourge of urban areas

In the river Mutha which runs through Pune, one of the fastest growing cities in India, the dissolved oxygen levels have fallen below 2 parts per million (ppm). The global norm is 8 ppm. The dissolved oxygen level in a water body determines its ability to sustain life, whether it is letting fish breathe inside the water or making the water fit for human consumption.

A near-dead river, as water conservationists call it, the Mutha joins the Bhima, traverses four big states as it becomes the Krishna, and caters to the water needs of people, crops and companies along its way.

Like the Mutha, all Indian rivers running through cities and towns have suffered excessive and ever-increasing contamination from industries and restaurants and from our bathrooms and toilets. On the fourth anniversary of Swachh Bharat, data shows an uptake in the number of toilets built; from about 45 million under UPA II to 86 million rural toilets to date under the current government.

But in the urban areas, there is a clear lack of efficiency. As against a sum of ~59 billion released to the states, only ~22 billion stands utilised, as the parliamentary standing committee on urban development has noted. 

With a 38 per cent spending efficiency, though with five million added toilets, the issue of cleanliness beyond the building of toilets is in crisis. Of the 62 billion litres of wastewater (sewage) generated in our cities daily, only 23 billion litres gets treated, according to Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) data. The rest, two-thirds of it, flows into rivers untreated. As the treated water gets mixed with the untreated dirty water, the net impact of sewage treatment plummets to zero.

How Swachh are our cities?
The sewage treatment capacity varies across states. While Maharashtra generates the highest amount of sewage among states, it treats 63 per cent of it. Kerala, West Bengal and Bihar treat less than 10 per cent of the sewage they generate.

Further, the major cities in any state invariably have a better treatment capacity. Sewage generation in Ahmedabad, for example, rose from 817 million litres per day (mld) to 848 mld in three years. However, city officials say the sewage treatment capacity is stagnant at 817 mld. Yet, this is still better than the state average. Gujarat as a whole treats 75 per cent of the sewage it generates, the highest among the big states.

“Meeting the revised SPCB norms and expanding coverage to 100 per cent of the area have been a challenge. The newer areas included in the city limits still run on septic tanks and are not connected to our drainage system,” a senior official in the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation told Business Standard. 

Further, more than half of wastewater enters a sewage treatment plant in the three morning hours from 6-9, when the capacity falls short, and the extra sewage gets bypassed through a “bypass pipe” to the river.

All this could spell the nemesis of Swachh Bharat. A recent CPCB report shows that about 175, or half, of the 351 select river stretches in India have pollution levels higher than the clean norm. Courtesy rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, Maharashtra and Gujarat lead in having the maximum stretches with extreme contamination.

Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) is the oxygen in the water spent in cleaning up the contamination such as human waste and food. The water is said to be fit for use if the BOD is less than 6 mg/litre, says the CPCB report. But in the Jetpur to Saran stretch of the Bhadar river in Gujarat, the BOD levels have touched as high as 426 mg/l.

The case of Lucknow too reinforces the plight of Indian cities. Only 55 per cent of the city is connected to a sewer network. This half of the city generates 600 mld of sewage; the city has a capacity to treat only 500 mld per day.

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The waste generated by the other half does not see the light of the sewage treatment plant. Hyderabad, the joint capital of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, too leaves half of its sewage untreated, and lets it flow into the Musi River.

If the state of liquid waste treatment is far from Swachh, the record on treating solid waste too is dismal - except for one improvement, namely, that from half of the wards in Indian cities, door-to-door waste collection now operates in two-thirds of the wards.

However, the waste that is collected is mostly a mix of dry waste and wet organic waste. In such a situation, the wet waste reacts with the dry waste to create sludge and leachate, which spreads a foul smell across the city, pollutes the groundwater, and proves fatal for sanitation workers.

According to the parliamentary committee on urban development’s response to the government earlier this year, only 33 per cent of the municipal wards in the country have 100 per cent waste segregation in place.

4th anniversary Swachh Bharat
Then comes the treatment of the waste. One of the objectives of the Swachh Bharat Mission (urban) is 100 per cent scientific processing and disposal of solid waste by October 2019. As of today, only 37 per cent of the municipal waste in India gets treated.

In Haryana, the proportion is as low as 17 per cent. In Odisha, it is even lower, at 10 per cent. In Chennai, the auto industry capital, about 2,800 tricycles collect garbage from homes. However, in the absence of a working treatment plant, about 4,500 tonnes of solid waste are dumped on two different landfills.

In Hyderabad, the dynamics are different. While the waste segregation at source is about 60 per cent, officials from the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation claim that the entire waste generated gets treated under the Integrated Municipal Solid Waste Management Project, taken up in collaboration with a private company.

“Source segregation was the biggest challenge we faced in our efforts involving the municipal solid waste management,” said B Janardhan Reddy, the former municipal commissioner of Hyderabad.

After four years of Swachh Bharat, the gaps are huge. If the crisis in rural areas is the failure to use toilets, in urban areas, it is the failure of sewage and waste treatment that is thwarting the campaign’s objective.

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