Bengaluru: Parameswaran Iyer, Secretary, Drinking Water and Sanitation, said Wednesday the most important task ahead for the Narendra Modi government’s flagship Swachh Bharat Mission is to sustain the momentum achieved after five years of concerted efforts.
Speaking in Bengaluru, Iyer listed the Swachh Bharat Mission’s most important achievements, the roadmap going forward, and the steps the government is taking to enable people of the country get access to water.
Iyer was in conversation with ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta at Off The Cuff in Bengaluru.
Srinagar-born Iyer, son of an Indian Air Force officer, is a former IAS officer who spearheads the Swachh Bharat Mission. When the programme was announced, Iyer was employed with The World Bank in Vietnam. He had expressed a desire to be a part of the mission.
Iyer now also heads the Jal Jeevan Mission, which aims to provide piped water supply to all households by 2024.
On toilets and waste
Iyer recently released the Swachh Bharat Revolution book of essays, an anthology by key players and swachhagrahis across the country. The book delves into the details, objectives, experiences, and difficulties of the mission. The essays are clustered under “four pillars” — political leadership, public financing, partnerships, and people’s participation — and includes contributions from people like Matt Damon, who founded water.org.
Iyer said when the mission was launched in 2 October 2014, India’s rural sanitation cover was 39 per cent. The objective was to raise that to 100 per cent open defecation free (ODF) by five years, ie, 2019. Iyer said more than 10 crore toilets were built in rural India, and the goal was achieved just before the deadline.
“There are about 6 lakh villages in India,” he said. “They self-declared themselves ODF through a transparent process — 699 out of 700 districts in India did the same. Outside agencies were then brought in to verify the claims.”
However, the process is dynamic and there will be gaps in coverage, he added. “The exact data gap is not known, and is often due to things like respondent bias which are common in household surveys. This is where people who already do have toilets say they don’t in the hopes of getting a second toilet,” Iyer explained.
The focus now is to sustain ODF and prevent any slip backs, said Iyer, adding that challenges are threefold — lack of infrastructure to make toilets unavailable, lack of water in toilets, and public attitude towards the usage of toilets.
The newly constructed toilets are shaped such that they require only 1.5 litres of water to flush completely, and are being used with water in containers, he said, adding the focus is now on making running water available under the Jal Jeevan Mission.
According to Iyer, the ‘jan andolan’ (public movement) aspect of the mission where people made the movement their own and used terms like izzatghar to refer to the toilets helped.
“Usage of toilets is high, and one of the lessons learned was that the government first focused on women for toilet use,” he recalled. “But they realised soon that the women needed toilets and used them instantly, and it was the men they needed to target to prevent open defecation. So, campaigns like Darwaza Band led by Amitabh Bachchan targeted men. And the challenge now is to sustain it.”
The Swachh Bharat mission was split into rural (population of 550 million) and urban (50 million, with more floating homeless population), and the focus has primarily been on the former. Urban areas have not yet been declared ODF. Iyer said the objective for urban settings now is to build community toilets at regular gathering places like markets, adding there would be more mobile toilets due to lack of space.
He said sewage treatment today is primarily done through about 100,000 “honeysucking trucks” — both regulated and unregulated — and fewer than 30 per cent of households have a piped sewage system. Instead of regular septic tanks, Iyer said, the government now encourages twin pits where liquid waste leaches into the soil and solid faecal waste gets converted into compost.
Speaking about plastics, Iyer stressed on the importance of waste segregation and said the focus should be on people now to ensure they follow it, and then subsequently on municipalities to make sure it is done at their level too. The reduction of single use plastic has been drastic and the plan is to eliminate it by 2022, he said, adding that reduction in plastic use was followed by PM Modi’s talk in Mahabalipuram and his plogging exercise on the beach.
Iyer added that a lot of single use plastic and styrofoam were now being used in road construction.
Water conservation and restoration
Speaking about rainwater harvesting and providing water across the country, Iyer invoked the Jal Jeevan Mission and the Jal Shakti Abhiyan for water conservation awareness.
“The Jal Shakti Abhiyan focuses on five major aspects: rainwater harvesting, rejuvenation of traditional water bodies, reuse and recharge of ground water, afforestation, and watershed conservation,” he explained. “It ran for four months and concluded on November 1. It is now going to be scaled up.”
Iyer mentioned that urban building codes will ensure built-in rainwater harvesting system. The government is also focusing on Functioning Household Tap Connections (FHDC) being provided to all households.
Speaking about groundwater extraction, Iyer said India extracts more water than America and China combined, and this is primarily because of agriculture, which makes up 90 per cent of India’s water consumption. While Gupta explained how paddy consumes unnecessarily excessive water, Iyer stated that policy changes are needed to address water consumption by water-intensive crops like paddy, wheat, and sugarcane. In states like Haryana, farmers are already being offered incentives to switch from such crops to others that consume less water like millet or bajra, and such an incentive system needs to be scaled up for the rest of the agricultural sector, he said.
Iyer said the government learnt lessons from the Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission, and from the UP and Gujarat missions to reuse water. There is also going to be renewed focus on preventing encroachment and renewing traditional water bodies such as existing lakes in cities like Bengaluru, which form a crucial system to sustain groundwater and prevent disasters like flooding during times of heavy rain, he said.
For groundwater management, Iyer explained how there is no incentive to prevent groundwater extraction at the moment, and that needs to be changed. There is also sporadic use of reverse osmosis (RO) systems in urban areas, which come with their own troubles of contamination in some places. The Jal Jivan Mission will focus on better provision of healthy drinking water through municipalities.