[Editorial] Desludging Model for ULBs

What is the situation in India?

  • In India, ULBs (Urban Local Bodies) have started to take measures for FSSM/ faecal sludge and septage management.
  • According to NITI Aayog’s report (Faecal Sludge and Septage Management in Urban Areas, Service and Business Models, 2021), over 700 cities and towns are in different stages of implementing the FSSM system.
  • More than 220 faecal sludge treatment plants (FSTPs) are under construction and 150 are operational.
  • However, sustaining the FSTPs has been a challenge for the ULBs. One of the major challenge is matching the faecal sludge load with the treatment plant’s design criteria. Too much load can lead to the plant’s failure.

How frequently is desludging done?

  • National Faecal Sludge and Septage Management Policy recommends the desludging of septic tanks once every 2-3 years.
  • Indian households generally have huge septic tanks that require cleaning once every 10-15 years.
  • In other countries, this is done once every 2 to 5 years.
  • In some countries, like Canada and Philippines, onsite sanitation system is inspected and desludged according to the accumulation.

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What are some criteria for determining desludging frequency?

  • Desludging frequency adopted by the different countries depend on several factors:
    • Access
    • Onsite sanitation system typology
    • Operational scheme
    • Financial arrangement
    • Personnel arrangement
    • Best practices and regulations
    • Byelaws and taxations
    • Awareness generation
    • Behaviour change
  • When considering a desludging model for ULBs in India, several other factors must be taken into account:
    • Desludging cost: the cost is competitive in larger ULBs due to presence of multiple private players. However, the smaller ULBs face more expenses in desludging due to smaller number of private players creating a monopolistic situation.
    • Demand: the demand is higher in larger ULBs compared to smaller ULBs. As a consequence, private players are attracted towards the larger ULBs.

How do the demand-based model compare with the scheduled desludging model?

  • The countries have largely resorted to one of the 2 types of desludging model, based on the various factors:
    1. Demand-based model
    2. Scheduled desludging model
  • In places where the houses have large septic tanks requiring desludging only once every 10-15 years, scheduled desludging is a suitable model.
  • This model is also used in Wai, Maharashtra and in Malaysia. It is also used in Nepal, Bangladesh and Indonesia.
  • The schedules are planned by the authorities and the households are required to pay a desludging tax.
  • This monthly taxation facilitates the households to pay for sanitation in small amounts rather than having to shell out a big amount at once. This makes the model financially sustainable.
  • For this model to succeed, the key requirements are local government capacity with regards to sanitation management and also investment decisions.

What are some examples?

Malaysian example:

  • The system in Malaysia could shed light on the involvement of various factors like regulation, governance, private sector involvement, stakeholder engagement, incremental technologies, containment quality and the importance of standard operating procedures.
  • The government had nationalized the sewerage services between 1993 and 2013. It provided regulated desludging services via Indah Water Konsortium, a state-owned sanitation company.
  • Though the system worked for the first 2 years, it failed as a result of poor enforcement of septage management policies. The scheduled desludging service wasn’t regularly provided and regulatory agencies failed to fine the households that didn’t comply with the rules.
  • The system also faced poor sustainability due to low demand. The households were required to pay the direct user charges and this reduced the demand. The resulting low collection was inadequate for financing regular operations.

Tamil Nadu’s strategy:

  • About 67% of the urban households in the state have septic tanks.
  • The Tamil Nadu Urban Sanitation Support Program uses the following approach:
    • Cost effective faecal sludge management solutions are scaled up using State Investment Plan. This is done in a phased manner across some 663 ULBs.
    • Treatment facilities are expanded
    • Creation of enabling environment and institutional framework to sustain the FSM interventions.

What is the way ahead?

  • Key to an experiential learning approach:
    • Rapid data collection
    • Co-develop program and finance options
    • Conduct early pilot projects on small scale to identify gaps
    • Upfront assessment of legal and institutional arrangements
  • Desludging must be treated as a part of the bigger challenge of sanitation.
  • The success of a desludging model lies in
    • Minimizing disruption of existing market
    • Use of differentiated model based on the generators’ category
    • Focus on protecting livelihood and prioritizing workers’ welfare, safety and health.
  • There isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of model. Each model has its own pros and cons. In general, smaller ULBs can do with scheduled desludging model while larger ULBs can be served by the demand-based model.
  • While deciding the desludging model for an ULB:
    • A small scale pilot project should be implemented before large scale adoption.
    • Lessons from the pilot project should help tailor the model to local requirements.
    • Before finalizing a model, aspects such as financial viability, regulations, infrastructural availability , institutional framework, etc. must be evaluated.
  • In general, the model favoured by the local households tend to work better than the model imposed on them. Hence, ULBs need to assess what works and what doesn’t while deciding on a desludging model.

Conclusion:

Solid waste management is a key requirement in light of increasing urbanization. A well-structured desludging model that is suited to local needs would help maintain sanitation at optimum level.

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