NEW DELHI: With India set to be declared open defecation-free on the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi on Wednesday, an environment think tank on Tuesday questioned the Centre's move, saying people may be slipping back to their old habit of open defecation.
In the last four years, India has built 100 million toilets in about 0.6 million villages, and another 6.3 million in its cities, said the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) while also questioning the sustainability of this feat.
"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 means a huge leap forward not only for it, but for the world as a whole. It will take the world a long way in its sustainable development goal of universal coverage of toilets and safe disposal of excreta," CSE Director General Sunita Narain said.
She, however, questioned how millions of tonnes of waste generated by these toilets will be managed and disposed of efficiently.
"The scale of this transition is so massive that it will mean new, bigger challenges. Will the extraordinary success of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) stand the test of time? How will the over 100 million toilets be maintained and kept functional? Will people continue to use them? Will the millions of tonnes of waste generated by these toilets be managed and disposed of efficiently, without polluting the environment? How will we make this success sustainable?" Narain said in a statement.
The CSE said that according to its ground surveys, in peri-urban India the quality of septic tanks is poor, waste is unsafely disposed of by tankers on land and in open drains, or worse, in water bodies.
CSE researchers pointed out that even if toilets have been built and are being used, the trend can reverse.
"A case in point is Haryana which had declared itself ODF in 2017. A recent investigation reveals that people are slipping back to the old habit of open defecation," it said, adding there is also the question of safe disposal of waste generated by these toilets.
"According to the National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey (NARSS) 2018-19, a nationwide survey 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'," Narain said.
She said these are only systems for containment of excreta, not its disposal.
According to the survey, roughly 34 per cent of the 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 said, adding 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," the environment NGO said.