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Swachh Bharat Abhiyan: Sanitation, purpose and the power of partnerships

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Swachh Bharat AbhiyanSwachh Bharat AbhiyanThe National Faecal Sludge and Septage Management (NFSSM) Alliance is prime example of how collaborative commitment can truly create collective impact.

By Sakshi Gudwani, 

The announcement of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan by the Indian government, back in 2014, created tremendous momentum to leapfrog the country towards reaching open defecation free status. By the end of 2020, the mission achieved significant success with a multi-fold increase in access to toilets. Yet, urban poor populations living in informal settlements are disproportionately disadvantaged, and rely heavily on community toilets, which significantly increases their exposure to infections, as has been evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has amplified the need for Individual household toilets (IHHT) to reduce the disproportionate sanitation burdens on low-income communities. However, beyond access to toilets, it is equally important to ensure that the wastes generated from the toilets are safely collected, transported, and treated. Of the 4000+ cities in India, only 30% are connected to a sewerage system and nearly 70% of households rely on on-site sanitation systems including septic tanks. This gap in sanitation infrastructure results in unregulated dumping of faecal waste into open drains, rivers, canals, and landfills, contaminating water bodies and soil.

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The push for solutions by the government is evident from the issuance of the National Policy on faecal sludge management in 2017 and the recent launch of the next phase of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Complete faecal sludge and septage management (FSSM) in 3500 small and medium cities is now a core component of the next five years of the Clean India Mission. Additionally, FSSM solutions are being scaled up in over 400 cities across the country. However, the magnitude, complexity and ever-evolving nature of the sanitation challenges in India demand multi-stakeholder collaborations.

An inspiring examples of pioneering collaboration for total sanitation is, Devanhalli, a town 40 kms from Bengaluru. In 2015, in partnership with the Town Municipal Corporation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, CDD Society built India’s first faecal sludge treatment plant, demonstrating a low-cost yet effective sludge management solution that other cities across India could potentially replicate. Recently, the Asian Development Bank signed a USD 300M loan to finance water supply and sanitation infrastructure to improve quality of life in towns of Rajasthan. Similarly, HSBC leveraged their CSR spending to enable Sinnar, in Nashik district, to become a model city in sustainable sanitation, by collaborating with Centre for Water and Sanitation (CWAS). HSBC’s support to the local government created a huge change for the city, improving the sanitation service delivery for the residents.

The National Faecal Sludge and Septage Management (NFSSM) Alliance is prime example of how collaborative commitment can truly create collective impact. Formed in 2016, and supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Alliance has been building consensus and driving discourse on safe, sustainable, and inclusive management of human wastes. With support of the Alliance, the government of India passed the National FSSM Policy (2017), the first of its kind globally. This landmark policy led to 19+ states making commitments to scale FSSM solutions.

As more foundations, corporates and philanthropists explore partnerships and models of collaboration, there are a few learnings and principles that they can keep in mind to maximize impact-

Patient Capital: Systemic change solutions demand long term and flexible funding with a high appetite for risk. Apart from investing in visible solutions, such as handwashing stations, toilets, and water pumps, we must also focus on investing in sectoral transformation. This could include building local government capacities, creating technology solutions to improve city resilience, and ensuring that the needs of the poor and vulnerable are addressed, especially in resource-constrained small and medium towns.

Multi-stakeholder approach: Urban sanitation requires a holistic approach to collectively activate all stakeholders in the ecosystem including governments (at the national, state, city level), practitioners, non-profits, corporates, and the communities. Blinkered efforts by independent stakeholders are likely to take more time and resources to come to fruition. It requires a deep commitment to aligning purposes, working practices and fostering respect for the perspectives, resources, and skillsets that each stakeholder is bringing to the table. Blinkered efforts by independent stakeholders are likely to take more time and resources to come to fruition. Examples of communities of practice, such as the NFSSM Alliance, have underlined the impact a collaborative approach can have on the sector.

Focus on vulnerable populations: Investing in sanitation services translates to prioritising the needs of vulnerable populations. Sanitation services are often inaccessible to vulnerable women, the urban poor, and marginalized communities. Philanthropic donors can complement government investments in such communities by adopting a slum (or its section) and providing additional investment to ensure adequate Faecal Sludge Management (FSM) solutions to prevent land and water pollution.

As India’s philanthropic and corporate funding ecosystem becomes more vibrant, FSM represents a unique opportunity for stakeholders to come together, commit to and invest in long-term systemic sanitation solutions.

(The author is Senior Program Officer, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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