Since 2014, more than 60 lakh household toilets and five lakh community toilets have been constructed in urban India, under the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). The scale of this exercise is unprecedented. The challenge now is continually maintaining these toilets, emptying their septic tanks, and treating their effluent. These are not fundamentally technical challenges, but ones of staffing and skill-building.

Simultaneously, there have also been efforts across cities to create systems to enhance skilling and employment opportunities for the urban poor. Since 2013, the National Urban Livelihoods Mission (NULM)—a flagship mission of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA)—has been federating groups of urban poor women into self-help groups (SHGs) and creating opportunities that provide them access to skill building, livelihood opportunities, and affordable credit.

For SBM, the challenge was finding adequately skilled operators or individuals who could maintain toilets. Without them the investments made to promote behaviour change actions that encourage toilet use were proving futile. NULM, on the other hand, was keen to explore alternate livelihood opportunities for its communities. Meanwhile, sanitation work continued to be high-risk, low-income, and caste-based.

To leverage these programmes to support each other, and to encourage inclusivity, community ownership, and participation in the urban sanitation life cycle, the MoHUA introduced the NULM-SBM Convergence Guidelines in 2018. Urban Management Center (UMC), where we work, collaborates closely with MoHUA as their Technical Support Unit, and was involved in conceptualising these guidelines.

The guidelines aim to provide realistic and actionable targets for Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) that are backed by regular support and guidance from the mission management units of both programmes.

SHGs must also be strengthened as a competitive alternative to private operators. We need to ensure that when SHGs are engaged they are not seen as inherently inferior to an operator, but instead as partners in the process, who are worth the same value.

Read the full article about urban sanitation by Sneha Philip at India Development Review.