India’s union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) recently released the results of what is deemed to be the world’s largest sanitation survey, Swachh Survekshan 2020 (SS 2020). The ministry was able to publish this year’s results amidst the raging COVID-19 pandemic after several stages of assessment and auditing with the assistance of a third party.

This year, the survey was able to assess 4242 urban local bodies (ULBs), including the assessment for 62 cantonment boards. Last year, it assessed 4237 ULBs. It surely is an inclusive process, given it initially started with just 73 ULBs in 2016 when Mysore bagged the first rank in the cleanest city in the country tally. The city remained in the top of the 3-10 lakh category this time too.

Ahmedabad was ranked as the cleanest in the above 40 lakh category. Indore, which has always topped the leader board since 2017, was declared the cleanest city in India for the fourth time in a row. Varanasi was awarded the “cleanest Ganga town”.

Patna, Bihar’s capital, was ranked the dirtiest city in the large city (more than 10 lakh people) category, while Gaya in the same state was ranked the lowest in the small city (less than 10 lakh) tally.

Counter to popular intuition, three Northeastern cities – Shillong (Meghalaya), Itanagar (Arunachal Pradesh) and Dimapur (Nagaland) – were ranked as three of the dirtiest in the below 10 lakh category. West Bengal, one of the many large states in India in terms of the number of parliamentarians (42 were sent to the 17th Lok Sabha), is a habitual non-participant in this survey.

The SS 2020 has played a massive role in rendering many parts of India open defecation free (ODF). Yet we have a long way to go. For starters, the survey is not scientific enough and is based on generic or misleading parameters. For instance, the mere allocation of funds to enhance toilet infrastructure is not indicative of the fact that the country will achieve the status of ODF.

One-size-fits-all solutions don’t work in a complex country India, where sanitation and hygiene are intrinsically linked to questions of access to water and geography. Notably, the survey also leaves out the caste and gender aspects that shape people’s access to sanitation and hygiene infrastructure.

Fascinating results

The final state rankings have been very interesting, to say the least. 27 states had been assessed, out of which Chhattisgarh was ranked first. The state rankings have come out this way because they are aggregated values of all the respective state ULBs. Uttar Pradesh has been ranked 7th.

SS 2020 RankState NamePerformance in support from State to CitiesPerformance in GFC Star Rating and ODFPerformance in SS 2020Total Marks
3Madhya Pradesh1103.3900.0354.72358.0
6Andhra Pradesh1195.0300.0291.11786.1
7Uttar Pradesh1010.0500.0257.91767.9
15Tamil Nadu983.30.00147.61131.0
16Himachal Pradesh921.6100.0103.11124.7
22Arunachal Pradesh823.30.014.9837.4
Source: State Rankings in Swachh Survekshan 2020 (SS 2020)

According to this table, the northeastern state of Meghalaya is the second dirtiest state in India. Ironically, the state boasts Asia’s cleanest village, Mawlynnong. It undertakes transboundary water sharing with neighbouring Bangladesh. Despite picking up on tourism through boating in crystal clear river waters in Umngot in Dawki and Shnongpdeng, is located in the Jaintia Hills, locals have ensured that the places remain spic and span, largely because of their strong belief in sustainable tourism.

The Umngot river in Dawki, Meghalaya | Photo: imtheepika from Pixabay

On the other hand, Kerala is ranked 27th as per the report, making it the dirtiest state. Alappuzha, famous for its backwaters, has been otherwise mentioned in the innovations section for having the DEWATS (Decentralised Wastewater Treatment System) in place. Kerala is also one of the first states in India that is on a mission to end manual scavenging by incorporating Bandicoot – a robotic scavenger. None of that was enough to put Kerala at the top of the table.

One size fits all?

The SS 2020 survey, which is a matriculation exam of cleanliness, carried a weight-age of 6000 marks this year spread across four major categories. each comprising 1500 marks – service level progress, direct observation, citizen feedback and certification. Certification, as stipulated by the MoHUA, includes certifying a ULB open defecation free (500 marks) and garbage free city (1000 marks). The service level progress has further been divided into six categories:

i) Collection and transportation
ii) Processing and disposal
iii) Sustainable sanitation
iv) IEC (Information, Education and Communication) & Behaviour change
v) Capacity Building
vi) Innovation and Best Practices.

It is important to note here that ULBs are not always Municipal Corporations. In this survey, municipal boards, town councils, nagar panchayats, and notified town areas also get assessed. Town councils and notified town areas usually have a population of within 25,000. Hence, clustering them within the definition of a city is confusing.

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The cities that have recurring cleanliness records are usually ahead on parameters like segregation of waste into dry and wet, sanitary landfill conditions, existence of waste to energy (WTE) plants and refused-derived fuel (RDF) plants, treatment and utilisation of wastewater, payment of water tax, provision and functioning of sewage treatment plants (STPs) and fecal sludge treatment plants (FSTPs), to name a few. Having them in place and maintaining them requires money, a thing that smaller towns do not have the luxury of.

In fact, one would come across personal experiences and stories of people who would absolutely fall in love with small towns and cities because they are cleaner, despite not having the right infrastructure in place. This is a dichotomy between the survey results and what is actually true on ground.

Even for rich municipal corporations, like Brihanimumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), it is very difficult to manage the city’s waste given the population (resident and floating). This is one reason why the beaches in Mumbai are dirty. All thanks to efforts of people like Afroz Shah that the public now joins hands in greater number to keep the beaches clean.

New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) has been declared as the cleanest state/UT despite the fact that Delhi is infamous for its overflowing landfills. Burning of waste has been one of the major contributors of air pollution in the city, along with stubble burning in winters in the neighbouring states.

The survey has not looked into the question of menstrual waste management, which forms the core of WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) practices and ensures that the topic of menstruation remains a taboo. Thanks to Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech, we can now have comfortable narratives around menstruation.

Although there has been a huge emphasis on building of public and community toilets, which have been constructed as per the guidelines given out by Central Public Health and Environmental Engineering Organisation (CPHEEO), there was no mention of dealing with sanitary waste, that is, sanitary napkins, adult and baby diapers, condoms, tampons, bandages, and others. This needs to be addressed seriously as hygiene products are contaminated with blood, urine and feces. It becomes even more important in a post-pandemic world.

A landfill in the outskirts of Delhi | Photo: Abhinav Kumar from Pexels

ODF and urban wastewaster treatment

The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM)-Urban, particularly, was aimed at achieving 100% ODF status in all ULBs by 2 October 2019, which coincided with the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. The survey particularly lays out a few definitions pertaining to ODF:

ODF: A city/ward can be notified/declared as ODF city/ODF ward if, at any point of the day, not a single person is found defecating in the open.

ODF+: A city/ward/work circle can be notified/declared as SBM ODF+ city/SBM ODF+ ward/SBM ODF+ work circle if, at any point of the day, not a single person is found defecating and/or urinating in the open, AND all community and public toilets are functional and well maintained.

ODF++: A city/ward/work circle can be notified/declared as SBM ODF++ city/SBM ODF++ ward/SBM ODF++ work circle if, at any point of the day, not a single person is found defecating and/or urinating in the open, all community and public toilets are functional and well maintained, AND entire fecal sludge/septage and sewage is safely managed and treated, with no discharging and/or dumping of untreated fecal sludge/septage and sewage in drains, water bodies or open areas.

The survey also highlights declaring a ward, zone or a city ‘water plus‘ wherein all wastewater released from households, commercial establishments, drains, nallahs and others is treated to a satisfactory level (as per CPCB norms), before releasing it to the environment. Further, adequate capacity of wastewater and sewage treatment facilities is to be ensured. Infrastructure should be maintained properly and cost recovery ensured through reuse or recycling of treated wastewater to ensure sustainability.

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While this sounds ambitious and is well-intended to saving water, only a handful of Indian cities are into wastewater utilisation. For instance, treated wastewater is used in irrigating agricultural fields on the outskirts of Gurugram. More importantly, there is very less discourse available on the need to use wastewater. Bengaluru pays one of the country’s highest water taxes because of the stages of water treatment it undergoes. It is one of the few cities in Asia that has a provision of tertiary treatment of wastewater before it is supplied to different areas, hence making it one of the costliest cities in India to live in.

Yet, there is an inequitable distribution of water supply. Rich areas will get more water per person per day and the slums are consistently provided with less water because of economical and societal barriers that further compromise with their hygiene conditions. Water, after all, is a human right.

Wastewater generation is far greater in the plains than in the hills as polluted stretches of rivers flow downstream. For example, the Ganga in the upstream is cleaner than when it flows downstream and is directly related to the ever growing population in the plains. There should have been one section in the survey on reviving wetlands or river and spring rejuvenation to better understand what pollutes our water bodies.

A boat picks up waste from the Ganga river in Varanasi | Photo: Angshuman Choudhury

As unsanitary conditions only get worse in cities and towns, the particular sight of clogged drains is very common – a reason behind the rise in artificial or urban flooding. Just a few days before the results were declared, the Delhi-NCR region was in the national news because of flooding after a deluge.

Furthermore, the survey lays focus on garbage free cities (GFC) star ratings, a thing which we can only afford to dream of at this juncture.

The privilege of the Hindi heartland

In 2018, I had the priviledge of being a part of Swachh Survekshan (SS 2018) wherein I had to look into the assessment of service-level progress of around 150 plus odd ULBs. I had to look after the whole of Northeast India.

The major challenge was getting to explain the nodal officers of the concerned ULBs and the on-ground assessors on the parameters that a city, town or ward is to be assessed. On the other hand, it was much easier for North Indian states to do this, as all the information dissemination happens in Hindi. To simplify, a particular ULB sends in major documents in Khasi or Mizo, which are written in the Roman script, but there is no one in the third party assessment to interpret the language.

The smaller and the newly-formed ULBs hardly have any idea of the toolkit, which they essentially find jargon heavy. Hence, they are automatically out of the race when it comes to getting marked on these parameters. It is indeed an irony that many North Indian cities that are famous for a general lack of civic sense have found themselves leading in SS 2020.

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Moreover, Shillong and many other Northeastern towns and cities do not have a landfill. They have dump yards and are in the process of shifting to landfills. Yet, many of these cities are known for their cleanliness despite lacking the right infrastructure. The residents of the Himalayan and Northeastern states routinely complain of tourists who have the habit of littering their pristine environments.

West Bengal, on the other hand, refuses to take part in this survey for strained centre-state relations. Naturally, it has become a daunting task to convince them to be part of this exercise. The former collector of Indore, Parikipandla Narahari, recently wrote on how Indore’s success serve as a model for other states to follow as exchange of technical know-how is the need of the hour.

The city of Indore, ranked as the cleanest in India, Madhya Pradesh | Photo: John Hoey, Flickr

Most Indian cities are a planning embarrassment, especially the post-colonial cities. One of the most well planned cities in South Asia, Chandigarh, has been consistently lagging behind in the cleanliness index. On the other hand, planning in the Indian context has been an issue of conflict between modernity and retaining Indianness. There cannot be one definition of ‘Indianness’ as there is a humongous amount of diversity involved. Hence, no matter the amount of media whataboutery that Lutyens’ Delhi receives, it is one of the most well-planned parts in the country.

There was a separate assessment category of Ganga Towns in the states of Uttrakhand, UP, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. Some of the parameters directly look into pollution levels or the waste in the river. It is interesting to note here that water is a state subject and there was no involvement of the respective state water departments or even the Ministry of Jal Shakti, Department of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation (MoWR, RD&GR).

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Varanasi tops the list under this category for population of more than 1 lakh, whereas Haridwar has bagged the fifth rank. In reality, however, Varanasi lies downstream of Haridwar, which makes it polluted for a host of reasons. In such cases, one cannot choose to ignore the environmental flow (E-flow) of a river.

Sanitation surveys should also extend the scope of informing the citizens in the region about BOD (Biological Oxygen Demand) levels, Dissolved Oxygen (DO) levels, pH, salinity, and other critical parameters. Such scientific parameters are assessed on a regular basis by state governments and the data that is generated can be extremely helpful in analysing pollution trends over the decades. Moreover, rivers can also get polluted because of non-point sources (such as agricultural lands) apart from point sources such as nallahs (large drains).

The Ganga’s riverbed being cleaned after drying, Haridwar, 2012 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

What’s missing?

For a large country like India, one size fits all solutions never work. They have to be local with an impetus towards technological intervention to ensure sustainability. The intent of this survey is extremely ambitious and people-centric, yet it leaves behind a lot of mess, not only on the ground but also at a policy level.

Since, the Paris Agreement, there has been a lot of information dissemination around Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at global and national levels. Few parts of this survey can actually be incorporated with some of the eight missions of the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) launched in 2008. Since the survey specifically focuses on sanitation, there has to be a discourse built specifically around SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure), SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities), SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production) and SDG 14 (Life below Water).

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we should also ask how we are supposed to manage medical waste, such as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). 

The logo of Swachh Survekshan 2020 has two magnifying glasses placed below the official logo of Swachh Bharat Mission – the iconic Gandhi Chashma (Gandhi’s glasses). One can hope these lenses are now used to view things that are right in front of our eyes. Things will be clearer that way.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

Featured image: A child plays at a garbage dump | Photo by pics_pd on Pixnio