Access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation are intrinsically linked. Without a clean, safe source of water nearby it is nearly impossible for communities to have adequate sanitation facilities, and inadequate sanitation facilities often spill over and pollute drinking water sources. Reflecting on World Water Week 2022 this week, Tanvi Bhatkal, Lyla Mehta, Pallavi Harshe and Veena Jadhav document the challenges and resilience of communities in the face of absent, poor or unsafe sanitation in Nanded, India.
Nanded, India was one of the first cities to initiate community-led total sanitation, mobilising communities to eliminate open defecation. Although short lived, the programme left a legacy of strong community groups that still negotiate the sanitation challenges faced by marginalised communities.
Nanded is part of the drought-prone Marathawada region of Maharashtra, India. A holy city for the Sikhs, Nanded welcomes over a million tourists annually. Additionally, industrial growth has attracted migrants from across the state and country to find work.
Like other rapidly urbanising cities, Nanded’s growth has been unequal and unplanned – characterised by a mix of cafes and shopping malls alongside narrow lanes and unplanned settlements. Urban planning has struggled to keep pace, contributing to inadequate infrastructure and housing. Migrant communities and residents displaced by infrastructure projects are pushed into informal settlements: as of 2011, 20% of Nanded’s population of 550,000 residents lived in ‘slum’ neighbourhoods. Like most Indian cities, Nanded is segregated along economic, caste and religious lines, creating spatial clusters of poor infrastructure.
In 2011, Nanded became one of the first cities globally to experiment with community-led total sanitation (CLTS), an approach pioneered by Dr Kamal Kar and already widespread in rural Asia and Africa. CLTS was introduced in Nanded by the Municipal Commissioner, Nipun Vinayak, who had experience with it in rural areas and mainstreamed it into Nanded’s City Sanitation Plan. Communities in marginal areas were urged to come together and analyse their sanitation profile and triggered to take collective action to build sanitation infrastructure. Women’s groups mobilised to monitor and implement waste management including street cleaning, manure preparation, and toilet construction towards open defecation-free communities.
However, the CLTS approach didn’t sustain after Nipun Vinayak was transferred from Nanded a year later. Without government support, communities faced numerous challenges and ceased activities.
A decade later, many still remember their efforts during CLTS in 2011. Strong community groups remain in a handful of localities. In many areas, residents recall how CLTS enabled them to assert agency in addressing sanitation problems and make demands from local authorities.
Nanded: Between the cracks of the sanitation grid
In 2021, Nanded was declared ODF+ and ODF++ under the Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Mission). It is reported that 95% of the city’s population is connected to the sewer system – 38% through the sewer network and 57% through open drains. Wastewater is treated at three sewage treatment plants before being released into the Godavari River.
However, declarations of ODF and total sanitation conceal significant challenges residents face across the sanitation chain – in containment, transportation and treatment. Following the sewage’s route reveals significant gaps between statistics and reality: 55% of Nanded’s wastewater and faecal sludge is not safely managed. Informal and poor areas are more likely to be excluded from the network, and face distinct challenges that impact residents’ everyday lives. Marginalised groups (including Dalits, neo-Buddhists) often contend with and live alongside wastewater, and navigate financial, geographical and topographical challenges as well as social discrimination.
This complicates understandings of being on- or off-grid, highlighting the need to look beyond top-level statistics and to examine residents’ lived experiences.
Exclusion from safe sanitation: on and beyond the ‘grid’
Some areas remain off the grid. Take the experience from Vikas Nagar: parts of this middle-class neo-Buddhist community are disconnected from the sewage network due to a combination of unplanned development, local political challenges and topography. On one side, a house at the end of the road obstructs the path to build a drainage line. On the other side, the adjacent neighbourhood had objected to Vikas Nagar’s wastewater flowing through their community.
Without any drainage infrastructure, residents release wastewater around their houses. Many residents have constructed soak pits, but they fill up and overflow regularly.
Even when settlements are connected to the sewage network, households may remain disconnected. In Lumbini Nagar, persistent complaints by the community about blocked toilets and drains led to the construction of a new sewage line.
But households were responsible for connecting their own toilets, the cost of which was often too high for them. This led to wastewater from toilets flowing untreated through open drains and towards the Godavari river.
Improper containment and transportation of wastewater
In many settlements, wastewater flows through open drains in front of homes. These often get blocked causing wastewater to overflow into areas where people sit and children play. This is particularly stressful during the monsoon season when diseases such as dengue and malaria are widespread.
To cope, residents sometimes cover drains in front of their homes to avoid seeing the waste and dirty water. However, this makes cleaning drains difficult and sometimes leads to water collecting near neighbouring houses, provoking tensions.
As poorly maintained open drains regularly get blocked, residents dispose kitchen and other waste into them. Sanitation workers occasionally collect trapped waste, which remains in a pile for garbage collectors. As this could be several days later, it often falls back into the drains.
Even for those connected to the sewage network through closed drains, poor maintenance often poses a challenge.
In many areas, damaged sewage lines spill wastewater into streets. This often floods into neighbourhoods, posing serious health risks to the community.
Polluting water sources
Improper wastewater storage and transportation risks contaminating groundwater. This is particularly worrying as drinking water pipes often run very close to – and sometimes even inside – open drains.
Due to water shortages, narrow pipes and topographical challenges, many areas experience low water pressure.
Residents have improvised various solutions to cope, such as getting water from lower levels to aid its flow.
Here, wastewater often re-enters pipes or areas near taps, polluting drinking water, especially in the monsoon season.
Many challenges remain. Given the difficulties in ensuring proper sewerage, the Nanded’s local government has introduced decentralised wastewater treatment systems (DEWATS) in certain locations where grid connections have proved challenging. These small-scale systems are cheaper to construct and maintain than networked infrastructure and treat wastewater close to where it is generated.
So far, DEWATS have been limited to municipal lands like public parks and hospitals. Yet they could hold potential to help extend safe sanitation and address financial, topographical and other challenges faced by off-grid communities. Treated wastewater can also help mitigate water shortages for non-drinking purposes. The legacy of CLTS in terms of community networks could support the development of decentralised treatment systems. But marginalised communities must not be made responsible for financing construction and maintenance of these infrastructures.
As the focus of sanitation policy in India moves beyond open defecation to address the sanitation chain, the lived experiences and voices of communities must be heard to inform infrastructure development in rapidly growing cities like Nanded.
Ensuring safe and inclusive sanitation means going beyond toilet construction and technocratic infrastructure regimes. It means looking at the politics of wastewater and faecal sludge management and, importantly, addressing the localised challenges faced by communities.