The world is not on track to meet one of its key millennium development goals — access to improved sanitation — cautions a joint report published recently by UNICEF and the WHO. Many countries, including rising India, face a “large sanitation deficit.” At present, 1.2 billion people worldwide defecate in the open and India has the uncomfortable distinction of leading the list with 665 million (2006). Lack of sanitation seriously compromises the heal th of people, endangering lives in many cases. It also contributes to the pollution of water bodies and the spread of water-borne diseases. The Economist, in a recent report, stated that “about 1,000 children die of diarrhoeal sickness every day in India.” A simple improvement in sanitation, as another study points out, can “decrease the rate of waterborne diseases like diarrhoea in the order of 25 per cent.” In all fairness to the government, investments on improving sanitation are periodically increased and programmes such as total sanitation campaign have been launched. But progress has been abysmally slow. The government fixed a target of building 108.5 million individual household toilets by 2007; but against this, the Eleventh Plan notes, only 29. 9 million were built. The official commitment now is to achieve the target by 2012.
Achieving sanitary goals will increase the demand for water, especially in rural areas. It will also mean treating a huge volume of sewage. Ballpark estimates suggest that Indian cities can treat only about 18 per cent of the 33,200 million litres of sewage produced daily. Conventional flush and discharge toilets use about 15,000 litres of clean water to flush 400-500 litres of urine and 50 litres of faeces per capita annually. Ecological sanitation (ecosan) on the other hand, through design and technological innovation, separates urine and faecal matter at source and treats them at site before discharging them for further treatment. This reduces water usage, and the quantity of sewage to be treated. It also prescribes the recycling of sewage and the creation of neighbourhood facilities. While the government is considering alternatives like pit toilets for rural areas, there have been significant advances in ecosan, which has been effectively used in both rural and urban areas in other countries. By themselves, governments in India may not be able to achieve the sanitation targets. They need to partner with organisations such as Sulabh International, which has demonstrated, along with self-help groups, how sanitary conditions can be promoted and established in slums. Such efforts need to be scaled up massively.