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COVID19, the Disaster Management Act, 2005- a great opportunity for SBM 2.0

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s out reach for a clean India on the 2nd of October, 2014 with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan program (SBM), as a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary in 2019, was very well intended and required the full participation of every single citizen. SBM broadly aimed to achieve an open defecation free (ODF) India, 100% scientific management of municipal solid waste (MSW) in 4041 statutory towns in the country and the cleaning of river Ganges by 2nd October, 2019. The COVID19 pandemic has provided the pivotal moment that SMB 2.0 required for the enormous change in our mindsets, norms, attitudes, approach and implementation. SMB 2.0 is not only imperative but inevitable.

India continues to be have one of the highest number of people without basicsanitation. The polluting of rivers remain unabated while the air quality across the country has deteriorated to be the worst globally leading to lung cancer, asthma and other related diseases compromising health and shortening life spans. Every Indian has the right to health and dignity and the specific needs of sanitation and hygiene of women and girls have to be addressed with their equal participation in decision-making. A WaterAid report states that if the number of women and girls waiting for a toilet in India (30 crore) were all to stand in a queue, it would stretch around the earth more than four times. Diarrhoea from the spread of hookworms by open defecation, dirty water, poor toilets and hygiene cause anaemia, weight loss in women killing over 3 lakh children under the age of five every year. The survivors are compromised with poor health prone to malnutrition, stunting, impaired physical and mental development with weakened immune systems.

With the exceptions of Nagaland, Mizoram, Sikkim, Kerala and Goa the infant mortality rates (IMR) in the other states are much higher than the sustainable development goal (SDG) as stipulated by the United Nation (UN). The states with the worst improvement in sanitation namely Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh have the highest IMR. The absence of proper sanitation facilities for managing menstruation in workplaces either hold women back from earning a living or those working loose up to 6 days of work every month. Over 40% of girls avoid schools facing similar hurdles. Governments, donors and investors must look at sanitation as a long-term investment. It is estimated that for every 1 Rupee efficiently spent on sanitation, Rs.4 is returned in increased productivity, provided women are involved in the decision making and spending of the money. According to WHO, the successful completion of “Swachh Bharat” would lead to saving 1,50,000 lives annually while UNICEF estimated that a household in an ODF village would save Rs.50,000 every year.

The Modi government put toilets on the front page and made considerable progress in improving the access to sanitation by building over 9 crore household toilets across India since the launch of SBM. Although open defecation has seen a sharp decrease, the job appears to be far from complete. The focus on building the household toilet infrastructure without a strategy for the water supply, facility and sewage management was a major shortcoming. The requirement for toilets beyond households to health care centers and schools was not well planned. According to WHO reports, two in five health centers lack basic sanitation placing patients and health workers at risk of infection.

In their book, Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development and the Costs of Caste, Diane Coffey and Dean Spears have argued that the main hurdle to the elimination of open defecation in India is the notion of ritual purity. Deeply rooted social and cultural habits are major attributes inhibiting change in sanitation mannerisms. In rural India, large number of people do not use the constructed toilets or do not build latrines because they do not wish to clear the pit containing human waste or live close by. Over 40% of people living in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan continue to defecate in the open. In urban India, due to inadequate public toilets or out of plain habit men are seen relieving themselves openly on roads and parks while women are forced to control their natural urge in great discomfort till they can get back home. People habitually spit and litter in the open with poor civic sense.

As per the 25th Report submitted by The Standing Committee on Urban Development, 16th Lok Sabha in February, 2019, of the 62 million tonnes of MSW that is generated annually in the country only about 75-80% gets collected, of which only 22-28% is processed and treated. Remaining waste is deposited indiscriminately at dump yards in an unhygienic manner leading to problems of health and environment degradation. MSW is projected to reach 165 million by 2031 and to 436 million by 2050 and yet there seems to be very little concern. If the present quantity of annual generation of MSW continues to be dumped without treatment; and considering the waste projections for 2031, the country will require 66000 hectares (with 10 meters high waste) of precious land for setting up landfill for 20 years, which she can ill afford.

The nation-wide shutdown forced by the spread of the Covid19 virus has resulted in millions of migrant workers returning to their villages and hometowns, many even from overseas. This will undoubtedly place way too much additional pressure on the presently under provided sanitation and health-care infrastructures particularly in rural India. Secondary health challenges in addition to the infection of the COVID19 virus may pose to paralyze life and the economy of India. Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH sector) that are interdependent on each other and form the core issues of sustainable development, will need urgent bold measures under the Disaster Management Act, 2005 that is presently enforced in the country. The challenge of accommodating the unemployed migrant workers and their hygiene needs could well be the opportunity for the States in the implementation of SBM 2.0 that will provide both employment and basic sanitation.

Supreme Court has laid down that clean environment is the fundamental right of citizens under Article 21 and it is for local bodies and States to ensure the same. It insisted on a rigid implementation regime. In January, 2020, The National Green Tribunal (Tribunal) pulled up the Chief Secretaries of all the States and UTs for the lapses and delays in most of the time-lines stipulated as per different rules of the Environment Protection Act (EP Act) and warned that these were punishable criminal offenses as per the same Act as well under provisions of the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010 (NGT Act). The Tribunal noted that apart from failures to achieve 100% SWM, there were failures of liquid waste management leading to the pollution of 351 river stretches, 122 non-attainment cities in terms of air quality, 100 polluted industrial clusters and other serious environmental consequences, threatening life and health of citizens, water and air quality and the climate. The Tribunal directed that 100% sewage treatment must be ensured by all local bodies and for failure to commence in-situ remediation after 31st March, 2020, a compensation of Rs.5 lacs per month per drain and/or per STP is to be paid by the defaulting local body, doubling the compensation to Rs.10 lacs per month for such failures after 31st March, 2021. It further directed the setting up of a special task force in every district for awareness by involving educational, religious and social organisations. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “corporate cleanliness can only be ensured if there is a corporate conscience and a corporate insistence on cleanliness in public places,” it is time that local bodies played their long overdue role in making a ‘Swachh Bharat’.

Under provisions of The Disaster Management Act, 2005, the Government of India should aim to expedite the setting up of such SWM and WASH infrastructures to extend beyond the 4041 statutory towns to the 3894 census towns. Additional protocols required to manage COVID19 related medical wastes must be provided for. For building and managing the MSW and WASH infrastructures, allocations for schemes in the 2020-21 Budget, like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Rs.12,294 crore), Jal Jeevan Mission (Rs.11,500 crores), Amrut and Smart Cities Mission (Rs.13,750 crores), National Livelihood Mission-Ajeevika (Rs.10,005 crore) and National Ganga Plan and Ghat Works (Rs.800 crore) may be collectively utilised along with the increased MGNREGS allocation (Rs.1,01,500 crore) under the COVID special package. The SBM 2.0 will require immediate front ended fund deployment from the second phase of the SBM program’s approved outlay of Rs.1,40,881 crore (till 2024-25) that was recently approved. The scope of AMRUT 2 needs to be extended to cover all cities and towns of India in quicker timelines. Soft loans, Government guarantees and grants may be extended to municipalities while private participation under Private Public Partnership models may be devised for speedy execution.

To counter the deteriorating air quality, we need to adapt greener technologies, restrict emissions and reduce dependency on coal based polluting technology. Some out-of-the box solutions like the setting up of a vertical forest as planted in Nanjing, China that is designed to absorb 25 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year and produce 60 kg of oxygen per day or the 100 meters high ‘smog tower’ in northern China may be explored for the more polluted cities. Prohibition of the burning of stubble, leaves or wood must be strictly implemented and fined. Anti-smoking laws need to be more stringent with clear demarcated zones even in the streets. Community washer-men, ‘istri-walas’ (clothes ironing man) who use coal fired irons must be provided with environmental friendly alternatives by the Government. The closing of so many factories may be an opportunity to identify and rectify the polluting ones to be remodeled into energy efficient and less polluting by extending financial support.

Cities and towns must speedily construct clean smart public toilets for both sexeswith adequate facilities for transgenders and the physically disabled at frequent intervals with GPS location trackers. Clear service chains around the waste must be developed considering containment, removal, transportation, treatment and disposal. The SWM set ups to be monitored through IT enabled systems and scientific analysis of data to be a continuous process. Independent credible audits of the construction, usability of toilets and the proper scientific disposal of waste must be regularly conducted. Importantly the demand for using toilets needs to be created by promoting the need for hygiene and social marketing of toilets.

Dustbins/ spittoons should be prominently placed at regular intervals across the cities and towns. Spitting, littering outside the dustbins/spittoons and open defecation/urination must be socially ostracized and made punishable under law. ‘Pan’, ‘Gutka’ and ‘Khaini’ consumption should be more regulated or better still be banned. The local bodies should be held liable for proper rehabilitation of stray animals, if we are to have cleaner urban centers. The violations of such laws and rules (bans) need to be treated with all seriousness under the Indian Penal Code and their strict enforcement must be done by the Police Department with special awareness training or through a special enforcement force under the jurisdiction of the EP & NGT Acts.

Our country’s compliance of environmental norms needs to be uplifted to the highest standards of respectability. The Tribunal pointed out that the review of policy and strategy for implementation of necessary norms in the right direction must be dealt at the highest level in the State and further reviewed at the National level. Implementation of SBM 2.0, with a broader scope than its first avatar, can provide employment, induce public investments, ensure a cleaner environment, improve health conditions thus save lives, socially uplift the marginalised particularly girls and women and yet be politically successful. If the nation’s health and hygiene are to improve to western standards, then the challenge of changing the way we think and behave not only lies with the Government but with every Indian. As we pledge to undertake “Dekho Apna Desh” to promote the geographical diversity and cultural heritage of India, let us more importantly pledge to a “Swaach Bharat” so that we can proudly say “Dekho Apna Swaach Desh”.

-Debashis Ghosal, FCA is the CEO & MD, Daiwik Hotels. He has written this article in his personal capacity.

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