Neera Nundy is the co-founder of Dasra, a strategic philanthropy organisation and was a speaker at ‘Philanthropy and the SDGs’, a side event to the UN High Level Political Forum.
Urban sanitation in India is a complex amalgamation of social issues that needs collaborative action, community participation and focused problem-solving. India’s sanitation journey has progressed with cities becoming open defecation free (ODF) and adopting sustainable sanitation practices. Through schemes such as Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) and the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), the government has undertaken various initiatives to ensure safe access to sanitation services, provide a safer livelihood to sanitation workers, improve the socio-economic status of urban poor, adopt decentralised methods like faecal sludge and septage management and mechanised technologies. While we have seen significant progress over the years, adequate funding can bolster opportunities towards ensuring inclusive and equitable approaches to benefit the most marginalised communities and overcome the challenges of rapid urbanisation.
Majorly bolstered by public funding, urban sanitation has seen low private sector investment, mainly in isolated CSR activities. Since 2006, the private sector has invested about $620 million, mostly towards Swachh Bharat schemes and behavioural change communication. However, driving investments towards other aspects of the sanitation value chain, that ensure safety and equitable inclusion of marginalised groups, is crucial.
One of the possible reasons for this limited investment in sanitation is the lack of awareness around aspects of sanitation that are beyond the purview of accessibility and therefore invisible. The Iceberg Syndrome in philanthropy dictates that giving is strongly linked to issues where tangible outcomes—the tip of the iceberg—can be seen. For example, funding infrastructural initiatives such as building schools or building toilets. However, investments in the invisible and massive part of the iceberg—representing the underlying causes and systemic issues—can create a deeper and sustainable impact.
These invisible outcomes can be achieved by shifting the conversation from infrastructural sanitation goals to a more sustainable approach to city-wide inclusive sanitation (CWIS). It ensures universal access to safely managed sanitation through solutions tailored to the realities of rapid urbanisation. Since philanthropic investment has proved vital in combatting critical challenges, its augmentation is a must for achieving inclusive sanitation outcomes.
Investment in inclusive sanitation solutions
About 30 percent of women in urban India are assaulted every year while accessing sanitation facilities. Marginalised groups, particularly transgender persons and people with disabilities, struggle to access safe sanitation. Further, it is also essential to ensure the safety and dignity of sanitation workers through appropriately designed Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), skill-building, and enhancing opportunities for their livelihood.
With recent infrastructure creation, it becomes pertinent to evaluate the extent and mechanisms to which sanitation services are accessed by all. This further underscores the need for the inclusion of marginalised sections across the sanitation value chain and the creation of road maps in outlining a CWIS. Philanthropists are well placed to use their influence to move the needle towards truly inclusive sanitation where women and transgender persons have access to safe sanitation services, authority, and representation as decision-makers.
Strengthening urban local bodies (ULBs)
Most ULBs in the country are currently understaffed and lack adequately skilled human resources. The private sector and philanthropists can support the capacity building of ULBs to ensure the efficiency of sanitation solutions. Timely payments to grassroots sanitation entrepreneurs and professionals can achieve inclusive policies and outcomes. Legally, a minimum of 1/3rd of seats in ULBs must be reserved for women—many states even raising this to half. Investing resources in the empowerment and leadership of women councillors in ULBs would bring an inclusive, gender-sensitive lens. It could be the best bet we make for transforming cities and, in the process, surmount the foremost societal challenges of the 21st century (climate change, water and sanitation, gender equality, employment, migration and economic growth, social cohesion, and so on).
Building resilient cities
It is estimated that India will add 416 million urban dwellers by 2050, further stressing the fragile urban systems which can barely support the urban poor. Thus, it is imperative to invest heavily in supporting cities to manage this growth sustainably and equitably through long term interventions focused on city resilience. Building resilience in cities requires collective action at the local level and bridging the gap between citizens and the government. Keeping this in mind, it is essential to build the capacities of India’s 85000+ councillors. They can bring transformative thought processes to the table—a prerequisite to ensure accessibility to water and sanitation facilities, eco-friendly and economical travel, safe living options, and a deep understanding of environmental concerns and their impact on vulnerable groups.
Philanthropic support and thought leadership can influence local governments to leverage opportunities to make sanitation inclusive, promote thought leaders who can drive the discourse, and direct attention towards the sanitation needs of vulnerable communities. A systems approach to philanthropic contributions can result in a sustainable impact on sanitation.
Furthermore, collaborative efforts in the sanitation sector have been catalytic toward testing approaches and scaling them up. Collaborative bodies like the National Faecal Sludge and Septage Management Alliance (NFSSM Alliance) have strengthened the foundation of India’s sanitation sector by driving multi-stakeholder collaborations across ULBs, governments, private sector players, citizens, and community-based organisations. Such collaborations have helped evenly distribute the collective hyperfocus on toilet infrastructure and access across the entire sanitation value chain.
Sanitation has tremendous implications on the health and education of marginalised populations, the environment, and the burden of care-economy functions performed by women. A WHO finding highlights the significance of sanitation in socio-economic improvement: A dollar spent on sanitation saves $9 spent on health, education, and economic development.
Sanitation forms the bedrock of building resilient cities; it is a cornerstone of the successful development of a city. With a rapid increase in urbanisation, many of us, for years, have been on the fence about directing our energy toward sectors like WSH. Therefore, now is the time to look beyond issues where we might have already made a breakthrough and focus on possible causes of colossal damage in the future.
The writer is the Co-founder and Partner at Dasra.
The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.
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