Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Jamila Verghese
Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

It has taken unconscionably long to do something that Gandhiji and national pride would have had us do within the first decade of Independence. Bindeshwar Pathak of Shaulabh Shauchalaya stands out among the very few who tried to do something to remedy the situation

Getting It Right

Legislation tabled to bar manual scavenging and to convert insanitary latrines into sanitary operations. Will this much needed Bill work?

By B G Verghese

New Indian Express, 15 April, 2012

As the Army charade grinds on, sections of the media have displayed a lack of sensitivity in upping the ante, howsoever inadvertently. An extravagant five deck, seven column banner headline in a leading paper hinting at an unauthorised “march on Delhi” during a particularly delicate period of strained civil-military relations, was by its very display alarmist. Although the idea of a coup was dismissed, the story ominously pointed in that direction after 11 weeks of investigation. The Allahabad High Court is mistaken in ordering a ban on publication of troop movements at any time. But what is at issue is not troop movements per se but the hint of something more sinister. An editorial or op-ed commentary on the lack of coordination and communication would have better served the intended purpose. And that is probably the real issue that needs to be addressed.

More importantly, the Government has introduced legislation to bar manual scavenging, cleaning septic tanks or handling shit. This ignominious and degrading caste calling has been a blot on India’s civic life and an assault on the constitutional right to a life with dignity. The draft Manual Scavengers and Rehabilitation Bill, 2012, however, calls for the conversion of all manually-handled (insanitary) latrines into sanitary ones within nine months of notification, or their demolition. Implementation is to be monitored by the National Commission of Safai Karmacharis and sanitary workers are to be trained in new skills and assisted to start alternative occupations.

It has taken unconscionably long to do something that Gandhiji and national pride would have had us do within the first decade of Independence. Bindeshwar Pathak of Shaulabh Shauchalaya stands out among the very few who tried to do something to remedy the situation through his sanitary pour-flush latrines. Will the proposed official Bill work, even if it is allowed to go forward?

The enormity of the task has been spelt out by the Centre for Science and Environment in its latestState of India’s Environment Report, No.7, “Excreta Matters”. This focuses on the parlous state of water and sanitation in urban India, based on a 71-city survey. The findings are grim. India’s urban population, currently 340 m, will rise to 600 m or 40 per cent of the population by 2030, with 68 million-plus cities. Though the Government claims that 90 per cent of urban India has access to safe drinking water and 64 per cent to sanitation facilities, water quality is cause for increasing worry with untreated sullage and open defecation spreading contamination. Quantitatively, agriculture still consumes over 70 per cent of available water while industry, municipalities and ecological uses demand more. City supplies are coming from ever more distant and tenuous sources as a supply-side solution while untreated waste and return flows, leaking pipes and taps, unregulated groundwater pumping and inadequate toilet facilities are spreading pollution. Low flows are converting rivers into drains.

Growing urban-rural discord is being manifest in water allocation and demand management leaves much to be desired. Water allocation, pricing and treatment norms vary across and within states with water having long been considered a free social good, rather than an economic good. The State is prone to outsource its municipal water and sanitation functions and the well-to-do often make do with better facilities and allocations or have the option to buy water at higher rates or depend on the Rs2,000-crore plus bottled water industry. Slum colonies and shanty towns are worst off in terms of water availability,sanitation and pollution. Sewage treatment is disconnected from water supply.

In 2008, the Government resolved that that by 2015 it would correct the shame of one in six urban dwellers and overall 60 per cent Indians defecating in the open, 26-50 percent urban households being denied adequate sanitation, with only 30 percent having access tosewerage and 37 per cent of all wastewater being left untreated. In many areas flushed toilets empty out into nullahs/rivers while decreasing flows have decreased the assimilative capacity of streams. A lot more money has been allocated for sewage treatment, drains and river clean-upunder urban renewal programmes. But merely upgrading infrastructure in the city does not mean that good, treated water is returned to rivers and aquifers. The CSE argues that water supply and sewage treatment remain disjointed and faecal flows pollute rivers. States and municipalities cannot carry the burden while well-to-do people and districts are subsidised.

The example of Chennai is cited. Here the Cooum and Adyar rivers and Buckingham Canal are cesspools despite considerable investment in sewerage. Yet the State Pollution Control Board counts 423 industrial effluent and excreta outfalls emptying into the city’s waterways.The cost of total water supply in the city is Rs 13 per kilo-litre but gets inflated to Rs17 per kl if leakage losses are taken into account.

A large volume of water is required just to transport excreta from individual toilets to sewage treatment plants/outfalls. More economic flush toilets have been designed. Better still would be to design eco-toilet systems where transportation and distant discharge are avoided and valuable chemicals contained in excreta and urine residues are recycled as organic manures.

Scavenging must go but water-sewage-excreta disposal must be built into a viable and partly self-sustaining system on the basis of equitable user charges. It must also mesh with the draft National Water Policy that is poised for adoption. This clutch of issues is as urgent as any from an economic, health and right-to-dignity point of view.

Meanwhile, four years after the passage of the Right to Education Act, the Supreme Court has upheld its validity and applicability to all but unaided minority schools and boarding schools for children in the age group of six to fourteen. This is a child rights act that the state should have endeavoured to deliver by 1960 in accordance with Article 45 of the Constitution. However, the new urgency will be welcomed though the State should assist private unaided schools to meet the additional liability and, more generally, ensure a sufficiency of trained teachers, books and infrastructure to ensure that all round quality marches with quantity.

The Education Commission had in 1966 advocated common schools to promote social and cultural mixing in a highly plural society with huge income differentials. Cultural barriers are more likely to break down at an early age when children are less conscious about class, caste, colour and community. In any event it is a constitutional mandate that must be fulfilled as a step towards building Fraternity and equal opportunity.
Simultaneously, the harshest punishment must be awarded for the killing of the girl child and female foeticide. The battering to death of Baby Afreen in Bangalore is only the latest in a despicable story of mass murder. Poverty and “sentiment” cannot justify such evil.

Finally, Mamata Banerjee’s megalomania constitutes a danger to democracy. She is becoming increasingly authoritarian and partisan and is fast losing public and, one must suspect, her own party’s support by her errant and arrogant conduct.

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