4 Reasons Why Cities Need to Revisit Sanitation Strategies

4 Reasons Why Cities Need to Revisit Sanitation Strategies

Time for our cities to start thinking about Service Level Improvement Plans (SLIPs) differently.

The increasing recognition of investment and capacity gaps in Indian cities has culminated in the launch of the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT). As a departure from the earlier practice of project specific sanctions, the AMRUT proposes approval of the State Annual Action Plan (SAAP) once a year by the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD). These SAAPs will be a culmination of city level Service Level Improvement Plans (SLIPs) and empower our states to give project sanctions and approval at their end. This places greater freedom and ownership in the hands of the city and state governments in identifying the best avenues/projects for deployment of the funds, but as a corollary, such allocation decisions require enhancement of capacity at city and state levels.

While AMRUT seeks to encourage cities to steer away from ‘capex intensive’ solutions to ‘low-cost’ citizen friendly alternatives, most cities are not equipped with the required ‘knowledge’ and ‘tools’ to take such decisions.

Let’s take the case of sanitation where cities are trying to revisit the fundamental question on the most preferable nature of sanitation infrastructure. This question has become particularly relevant in the past few years, in light of the high cost of Underground Sewerage Systems (UGSS), where, combined with significant leakages and under treatment even in the context where UGSS is present, there has been an effort to revisit the traditional target of “100% UGSS coverage”.

From an AMRUT perspective, while sanitation in general, and “on site sanitation” in particular are integral components of the programme, city governments typically consider “100% UGSS coverage” as a key goalpost. In addition to 100% UGSS being an aspirational point, the alternative (on site sanitation through septic tanks) is highly unregulated in most cities, with the city governments having limited oversight of this space across its life cycle (construction, operation, desludging and treatment). Additionally, on site systems have become synonymous with manual scavenging, as most of the desludging happens through manual intervention, as compared to mechanized suction, transport and treatment as per norms.

Rethinking Sanitation Strategies

In this context, it is important for cities to revisit their sanitation strategies to consider a re-examination of the UGSS – on site mix. This rethink is important due to four reasons:

  • Fiscal space
    In comparison with the Smart Cities Mission, AMRUT is designed to cover cities across a greater range of sizes (minimum population being one lakh). Typically, these mid size cities have limited fiscal space to make room investments which UGSS typically entails1.
  • Cost incidence
    In an environment where realizing user charges for public utilities is extremely challenging, on site systems provide an inbuilt mechanism to transfer bulk of costs (construction and maintenance) on the users. Given that on site septage is almost entirely paid for by households, there is low cost incidence on the government. The government can alternatively co-contribute towards creation of household level infrastructure.
  • Cost effectiveness
    In mid size cities, which do not have sufficient density to justify UGSS, or which have hydrological/geological features which make UGSS difficult to implement (e.g. limited water availability), there are other alternatives such as decentralized sewerage systems, which could be implemented more cost effectively. Given that the portfolio of technical options available to cities has expanded, cities need to consciously discover the tipping points in terms of cost per capita, across multiple options.
  • Investment Planning
    Even in cities where UGSS is feasible, it is clear that 100% UGSS coverage is impossible to achieve in one go. In other words, there needs to be careful planning of the way in which the UGSS network grows over time, keeping in mind factors such as unit (e.g. ward) level return on coverage, asset usage, and ability to grow the network over time. This could in turn, call for a calibrated approach of phasing in UGSS over time, with other options explored as mid-term arrangements.

Alternative Approaches

The AMRUT provides a good avenue for cities to structure such a re-evaluation around. Given that city level SLIPs are aggregated and evaluated at a state level, the state faces an allocation problem, meaning that it will need to prioritize investments which offer greatest “value for money”. To address this issue, states can come up with normative evaluation frameworks, which provide tools for cities to compare multiple sanitation options, to identify the optimal configuration for their context. This will also serve as a mechanism to homogenize and compare across the proposals of multiple cities, for better allocation.

While ideologically moving away from the target of “100% UGSS penetration” might be hard for city governments (given that citizen aspirations and real estate prices have typically favoured UGSS coverage), cities would do well to realize that resources for achieving 100% UGSS might be better spent on other service areas. Alternatively, cities can spend their bandwidth on ensuring lower total cost of ownership for on site sanitation infrastructure, by focusing on operating phase (e.g. desludging and treatment), which are quite unregulated currently. While UGSS could still end up being the preferred option in some cities (due to a combination of technical and density related factors), such “alternative evaluation” approaches can provide greater transparency and better return for taxpayer money.

1While the estimates for sanitation cost from HPEC 2011 work out to ~ 4,700 per capita (works out to ~ 6,700 at 2015 prices), this costing is contingent on population density being high enough to ensure optimal utilization.


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Praveen Ravi
Praveen is interested in applied decision sciences, impact assessments and governance and reforms.