India has been declared open defecation free (ODF) by Prime Minister Narendra Modi but there is a bigger onus on the country now to maintain the achievement.
An investigation by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) found that even if toilets have been built and are being used, the trend can reverse. In Haryana, which had declared itself ODF in 2017, people are slipping back to open defecation.
Sunita Narain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) says, "Till barely five years ago, India was home to 60 per cent of the world's people who defecated in the open - if the nation now achieves ODF status, it is a huge leap forward." But this comes with a caveat. She adds, "The scale of transition is so massive that it will mean new, bigger challenges."
So, will the success of Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) stand the test of time? According to the National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey (NARSS) 2018-19, undertaken by the government to establish SBM's success, disposal is "safe" if the toilet is connected to a septic tank with a soak pit, single or double leach pit, or to a drain. "This is an inadequate and erroneous definition of 'safe', says Narain. She points out that these are only systems for containment of excreta, not disposal.
According to the Survey, roughly 34 per cent toilets are septic tanks with a soak pit; another 30 per cent are double leach pits, and another 20 per cent are single pits. NARSS assumes that these toilets will safely decompose the excreta in-situ.
But this will depend completely on the quality of the construction of the toilets - CSE researchers say that this is the crux of the problem. If the septic tanks or double leach pit toilets are constructed well, then the excreta will be safely decomposed and when removed, will be safe for reuse on land. But CSE's ground surveys in peri-urban India have found that the quality of septic tanks is poor; waste is unsafely disposed of by tankers on the land and in open drains, or worse, in waterbodies.
Says Narain: "The question that we need to ask ourselves is will this lead to another, far bigger challenge, when the pits are emptied and not-yet-decomposed waste is dumped into waterbodies or in the fields? The resultant soil and water contamination can be catastrophic for public health."