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Intelligent Wastewater Management in Small Towns in India

Nitya Jacob
SuSanA India Chapter Coordinator

New Delhi • India


The vexed issue of wastewater management in small-town India, comprising sewage and other drainage, may finally get the attention it needs. A major source of pollution, small towns with a population of less than 1 lakh generate about 2,900 million litres per day (MLD) of sewage. Of this, 94 per cent is discharged into the environment without treatment.

© • Nitya Jacob •

Wastewater settling tanks in rural India

A slew of measures is suggested under the second phase of the Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban) to tackle the long-standing problem of wastewater and sewage from small towns, numbering nearly over 2,500 and home to 26 per cent of the urban population of India. The measures also aim to ensure the toilets – household and public or community toilets – built so far, remain functional, no untreated wastewater enters the environment and hazardous entry into sewers and septic tanks are eliminated.

They also include technical and financial support for augmenting the conveyance and treatment of sewage and faecal sludge as well as expanding the human resources in ULBs. The elimination of manual scavenging is another important measure. These build on earlier urban sanitation programmes from 2008 and consolidate the gains of Swachh Bharat Mission Urban Phase I.

To ensure the facilities remain usable, a suitable conveyance system is needed for sewage and faecal sludge for sewered and unsewered connections, respectively. The denser inner-city areas of small towns, which may account for half of the population, will be provided with an underground sewer system (UGS). The outlying areas that rely on onsite sanitation will rely on improved and natural drains, as well as truck-based conveyance.

The seasonal drains that criss-cross many towns will be connected to interceptor sewers. The whole network will be connected to a sewage treatment plant (STP), one of each will be set up in each town to treat both sewage and faecal sludge. The urban local body (ULB) can select the most suitable technology for the STP from the manual of the Central Public Health and Environmental Engineering Organization (CPHEEO) of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA).

This is good in theory. In practice, experts point out several issues that can hamper the operation of STP fed by drains. As much as 66 per cent of India is semi-arid or arid. The seasonal drains in towns located in these areas may have inadequate wastewater flows for 6-8 months in a year. Several towns in river flood plains have very slight slopes. This also hampers wastewater flows and encourages stagnation. Building interceptor sewers may not be practical as drains may be far apart, or flow in different directions.

In Gujarat, the state government has started building UGSs in 167 ULBs. These are funded by government grants that covers capital and operational costs for 5-10 years. Thereafter, the ULB must cover O&M costs. As many as 124 STPs will be built. There are several systemic challenges in the project. The cost recovery of ULBs meets only 23 per cent of O&M expenses. Sewage charges will need to be raised steeply from an average of Rs 200 to Rs 1065 per year to cover these expenses.

The other conveyance method, of suction machines on trucks to clean septic tanks, forms part of the overall small-town wastewater management. Fleets of these trucks will be deployed to clean septic tanks in outlying areas and carry the faecal sludge to the town’s STP. Government grants will cover the capital costs subject to certain conditions. Running costs are to be met through user charges.

The Union and state governments will provide grants for some of this infrastructure. The ULBs will fund the rest. The Federal government will provide upwards of 50 per cent of the funds. The state government and ULBs will have to seek out the rest. One major source of funds is the 15th Finance Commission, which has allotted Rs 1.2 lakh crore to ULBs. But given the magnitude of the task, to provide adequate sewage treatment in all the towns, the pool of funds needs to be expanded and diversified. Further, the finance needs to cover lifecycle costs that include routine maintenance and replacement of infrastructure.

Experts have suggested three ways to accomplish this. One is to ensure that banks lend for sanitation projects as this is a designated priority sector. The scope of lending should be widened by including organizations that are providing sanitation services by engaging with regulators to build the scale needed. New pools of capital can be sourced from private investors and high net-worth individuals to go beyond corporate social responsibility grants. Catalytic capital can leverage larger amounts of funds and have a snowballing effect. A credit guarantee can be used to attract newer investors.

Another mode is impact bonds in which milestones are defined and funds are released when they are attained. UBLs may be convinced to offer several small bonds of USD 1 million each rather than one big bond of USD 100 million.

To optimise the use of infrastructure, that will augment reach at minimal cost, experts have suggested clustering and working across the rural-urban continuum. In this, an STP set up in a small town could service surrounding villages. The panchayats of those villages would pay the ULB for processing faecal sludge or sewage (if they are connected to the STP by drains or sewers). They have cautioned that the sanitation chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

In Tamil Nadu, the state government has optimised the existing sewage treatment infrastructure. With an additional investment of just Rs 200 crore, it has covered 75 per cent of the urban population in 528 town panchayats. Its strategy of co-treatment allows the use of existing infrastructure for treating faecal sludge without much additional investment. Tamil Nadu took a modular approach to build STPs and FSTPs where more modules can be added when needed. This has reduced the upfront costs of capital and land and the time to make the plants operational.

A similar cluster approach can be tried in small towns with a rural hinterland. The advantage, experts have said, is that processed sludge and treated wastewater can be reused in agriculture given the rural-urban proximity. This would create an additional income stream. It would also reduce the problems of disposing of these by-products of sewage and faecal sludge treatment. Suitable standards need to be evolved to facilitate systematic reuse to minimise the hazards from infectious agents (such as soil helminths) that persist in treated sludge.

The safety of sanitation workers, formal, informal and contractual, is important going forward. According to government statistics, more than 300 people die each year cleaning sewers and septic tanks. But organizations working with manual scavengers say the actual figure is much higher. According to them, more than 1.2 million continue to work in this profession. Their training and rehabilitation are getting more attention.

Behaviour changes to ensure the consistent use and maintenance of individual and public/community toilets has been demonstrated to be the weak link. The focus on sewage and faecal sludge treatment will also require public campaigns to encourage people to pay for these services. This is a political decision that ULBs need to take but need support in fixing realistic tariffs and communicating this to the citizenry for compliance.

The lack of human resources in small ULBs needs to be addressed, experts have said. They have pointed out ULBs in towns with populations less than 1 lakhs may not have a department especially for managing sanitation, sewage and faecal sludge. Moreover, they may have a single engineer to oversee multiple development projects in diverse areas.

Experts have suggested a pooled approach to augmenting these capacities if it was not feasible to provide each ULB with a dedicated sewage cell. This pooling could be at the divisional level under divisional commissioners. The junior or assistant engineers could be given orientation courses on designing and managing sewage systems, as well as how to draw up contracts with private service providers.

This multi-pronged approach to tackling both persistent and emerging challenges of sewage and wastewater treatment to be rolled out over five years could address the needs of newly urbanizing India in the near time. A longer-term approach stretching over the lifetime of infrastructure will also be needed shortly.

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