Laws are good, implementation not so much

As a child back in the village, I had always cherished the sight of clear water running below bridges. But moving to the city, the car windows are always drawn up and the car zooms across bridges in a bid to avoid the stench emanating from the river. This begs the question, why are we in urban India so deprived of a clean environment?

We live in an age where adequate importance is being given to toilets. However, what happens after one uses the toilet? Where does it all go? Ideally the toilets are either connected to the underground sewer (off-site sanitation system) or a pit latrines or septic tanks (on-site sanitation system) from which the waste is taken to the sewage/septage treatment plants. Does this really happen?


Urban India with a whopping population of 377 million sends out only 30% of the sewage/sepatge from its toilets to the treatment plants. An analysis by Indiaspend says that the remaining three-fourths of the sewage/septage is illegally dumped into our lakes, rivers and seas polluting our water bodies.  So why is this rampant pollution of our environment being ignored? Is it the lack of legal instruments and monitoring mechanisms to control the pollution, or is it the poor implementation of existing laws?

To start with, let us look at the laws which are in place for safe containment, collection and transportation of fecal sludge.

  1. Tamil Nadu District Municipalities Act, 1920 (applies to the 124 Municipalities and 528 Town Panchayats in the state)
  2. 12 Municipal Corporation Acts enacted for the 12 Municipal Corporations in the State.
  3. Tamil Nadu Public Health Act, 1939.
  4. Various bye-laws at the State and Urban Local Body level.

The TN District Municipalities Act, 1920 and 12 Municipal Corporation Acts has rules and bye-laws in place for construction, operation and maintenance of toilets, sewer systems and septic tanks. The Tamil Nadu Public Health Act, 1939, is a significant Act which exercises rules for prevention of sewage/septage from containment systems or insanitary toilets to be let out into open spaces or water bodies, prohibits practices of open defecation, and further issues directions for closure of unfit containment systems/insanitary toilets violating the laws.  With respect to Toilets and On-site systems, there are Acts which enforce safe regulation. In any case, despite existence these legal instruments a deeper question arises with respect to implementation of these laws.

The enforcement of many of these rules do not hold good at the field-level due to practical difficulties involved in identifying insanitary toilets and retrofitting them. The minimal fines starting from Rs. 30 to be imposed for violation of laws are seldom put into practice. In terms of collection/desludging, the CPHEEO Manual on Sewerage and Treatment, 2013 advises regular de-sludging of septic tanks. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 recommends the usage of mechanical devices and safety gears for deslugding.

A further look at the transport and emptying of fecal sludge component denotes neglect with respect to legal structures. Although the Act says that only authorised vehicles/carts with adequate covers and licenses are allowed to collect fecal sludge from households; regulatory practices for checking on their safe disposal seem to be absent. Particularly, there is an absence of any designated monitoring authority to prevent disposal of fecal sludge into the water bodies/open lands. As a result of these gaps there is a rise in the unregulated private sector operating under unsatisfactory conditions causing harm to the environment and public health.

While there are gaps existing in the current legal instruments which need to be plugged, the bigger issue, however, is the poor implementation mechanisms. These can be attributed to fragmented laws, lack of awareness on the negative impacts of improper sanitation and inadequate number of existing sanitary personnel solely dedicated to implementing sanitary works.

Therefore, it is necessary that the Central government and Tamil Nadu State government which are now in the process of seriously implementing the National Policy on Fecal Sludge Management and Operative Guidelines for Septage Management for Urban and Rural local bodies in Tamil Nadu, 2014 respectively, should work towards creating awareness among all stakeholders which will go a long way in the implementation of these policies/guidelines.


Tamil Nadu District Municipalities Act. 1920. “Tamil Nadu District Municipalities Act.” Tamil Nadu: Government of Tamil Nadu.

Public Health Act. 1939. “Tamil Nadu Public Health Act.” Tamil Nadu: Government of Tamil Nadu.


Srinithi Sudhakar
Senior Associate, TNUSSP



Bladder Woes: Bridging the sanitation gap along the highways

As I was mentally getting prepared for an almost 12-hour journey from Delhi to Shimla, my thoughts were fixed on one crucial thing, to get through the journey without having to use any of the public toilets on the way. The highways do not have any specific public toilet structures and by public toilets, I refer to those available in hotels or restaurants situated on the highway. I am not ashamed to confess that I suffer from toilet anxiety or toilet phobia particularly at the thought of using public toilets. The fear of having to use an unhygienic and a reeking toilet compels me to consciously hold the urge to urinate, no matter how bumpy the ride is. Though it may sound anomalous, it is a fact that many women silently endure this inescapable dilemma while traveling. This pernicious tendency to procrastinate the urge to pee not only increases one’s likelihood of developing urinary tract infections (UTIs) but also intensifies the anxiety level. This then leads us to an important question, why is there a vacuity in sanitation amenities between urban set ups?


Toilet 11The answer is rather direct – sanitation along state and national highways has not received adequate attention within the WASH sector or policy in India. In the context of urban sanitation, which in recent years has received concerted attention among policy-makers and practitioners in India, the provision of toilets along National or State Highways is a missing component. The vision of the National Sanitation Policy 2008 by the Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India clearly states that, “All Indian cities and towns become totally sanitized, healthy and livable and ensure and sustain good public health and environmental outcomes for all their citizens with a special focus on hygienic and affordable sanitation facilities for the urban poor and women” (NUSP, 2008 Providing sanitation related amenities along State or National Highways certainly does not come under its purview and this gap has been filled to some extent by other Government departments and agencies like the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways and the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI).

The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has dove-tailed the sanitation component into their broader sector guidelines and in 2013, issued a set of guidelines/norms for access permission to fuel stations, private properties, rest area complexes and such other facilities along National Highways. The rest areas will have to provide a variety of amenities to road users including free access to toilets 24/7.  Further, in 2016, NHAI announced that, in line with the Prime Minister’s Swachch Bharat Mission, processes are in place to upgrade toilets in petrol pumps along the National Highway. The petroleum companies were also given a basic design to conform to and renovate. Further, proposals were called for setting up wayside amenities along National Highways across India using Public Private Partnership (PPP) ( . These initiatives are commendable and definitely provides some amount of solace to the existing problem. However, it does not cater to all kinds of road users especially those who travel by public or private tourist buses that operate on their own terms and makes pit stops in stipulated motels/restaurants. So, what can be the solution to this cohort?

The most viable opportunity is to target motels and restaurants that dot all along the State and National Highways. These rest points offer to the tourists or travellers an opportunity to replenish and relieve themselves. Nevertheless, the toilets offered by these establishments are often dirty and insufficient with just one toilet for a busload of people. By identifying and mapping the existing motels or restaurants amenity-wise, the State or Urban Local Government can include them under the broader umbrella of a Sanitation Mission. This can include orientation and training of motel or restaurant owners on the need to provide and regularly maintain hygienic toilets. In order to motivate them to ensure a standard, the toilets in the establishments can be given a five-star ranking based on the level of cleanliness and usability of the toilet. The toilet star ranking can be then exhibited outside the establishment for visibility. In addition, the tourist logistic companies can also be roped in to educate them on ensuring that tourists are given a fair opportunity to use clean toilets. In doing so, they should be encouraged to choose motels or restaurants that have a toilet star ranking that is four or five.

Access to a clean and a safe toilet is a right for all and the responsibility to ensure accessibility rests predominantly with the National and State Governments. By re-defining urban spaces within the existing National Sanitation Policy, these oblivion toilets will serve its purpose to anxious travellers like me.





Reeba Devaraj
Senior Specialist, TNUSSP