By the IIC-ASCI team

On March 14, 2017, our project, S3Andhra, won its first major state-wide policy victory.  On this date, the Government of Andhra Pradesh, through the Ministry of Municipal Administration and Urban Development, passed a government order we had written (G.O. 134), titled Faecal Sludge and Septage Management: Policy and Operative Guidelines for Urban Local Bodies in Andhra Pradesh.  We celebrated the passage of G.O. 134 like a real statewide victory for the project, but cautiously – without persistent follow-through the order’s journey would end in forgotten folders and rarely-accessed websites.

G.O. 134 provides an excellent lens to look at the challenges of implementing, as opposed to designing, policy.  But first, to explain what Faecal Sludge and Septage Management (FSSM) is all about, we need to rewind six months, to October 2, 2016.

On October 2, the Government of Andhra Pradesh declared that all urban areas in the state were “Open Defecation Free” (ODF).  In other words – all urban households have access to a sanitary latrine, either at home or nearby, at a functioning community toilet.  While the on-ground reality may not always match the declaration, the Government of Andhra Pradesh has done an excellent job building sanitation infrastructure, funding 170,000+ household latrines and 1,000+ communal toilet units.  Though gaps in access remain, the government is actively working to fill them.

One of the central goals of all of this infrastructure is to improve public health.  When people defecate openly into the environment instead of using toilets, pathogens from their feces contaminate groundwater and river-water.  Diseases like typhus, typhoid, and dysentery become common killers and cause maternal and childhood malnutrition, which in turns causes stunting and lowers educational achievement.  If all citizens use toilets, then feces is properly dealt with – out of sight, out of mind, and out of our water sources.  In theory.

The reality is quite different.  Underground sewage systems are rare across India, and only six of Andhra Pradesh’s 110 municipalities are home to even incomplete sewage systems.  They are expensive and time-consuming to build and costly to maintain.  As a result, feces accumulates in pit latrines and septic tanks until they’re near overflowing, at which point pits and tanks need to be emptied.  The contents of pits and tanks are evacuated into tanker trucks, which then dump their waste into forests, fields, drainage canals, and rivers.  The truck drivers aren’t villains – there’s nowhere else to dump the waste – but nonetheless, the process is nothing but open defecation by other means. 

Which brings us back to G.O. 134.  The government order instructs municipalities to solve this problem by taking (broadly) three steps: first, human waste has to be effectively contained in septic tanks and latrine pits, which need to be brought up to code; second, truck operators need to be regulated for safety and environmental standards; third, municipalities need to construct treatment plants so the fecal sludge can be safely disposed of and reused as fertilizer or soil conditioner.  The combination of these three elements is called “Fecal Sludge Management.”

The order is in line with national and international best practices and the policy is politically uncontroversial.  The national government has been recently emphasizing the importance of fecal sludge management within the urban sanitation landscape, and sanitation as a field receives an enormous amount of funding from both the national and state government.  Moreover, the state government has considerable power over municipal administrations, who possess relatively little functional autonomy.  One could be forgiven for thinking “now the hard work of designing policy is over, all that’s left is to watch people follow instructions.”

However, nothing could be further from the truth.

When Spain ruled as a colonial overlord over most of the Americas, there was a common saying attributed to colonial officials: Obedezco pero no cumplo – I obey but I dont comply.  Unfortunately, the same saying could be attributed to municipal officials in India, who are burdened with innumerable mandates with the staff, expertise, or resources to achieve them.  For these officials, G.O. 134 is just another thoughtless mandate.

Our project is addressing this challenge in two ways.  On the one hand, we’ve embedded seven team members directly into three “pilot towns.” In these towns, each of which has a population of only 50,000, we can get involved in the particulars of implementation, doing everything from meeting truck operators to presenting at town council meetings.  Operating in such a small setting, two team members per town can make a huge difference.

Of course, Andhra Pradesh contains 110 urban municipalities, which means there are 107 ULBs where we dont have staff.  These municipalities range in population from a low of 40,000 to a high of 2,000,000 and present a plethora of different challenges.

Thus, to scale up G.O. 134 and FSM policy, Project S3 Andhra has stationed six team members in Vijayawada, the state capital, where we face a different set of challenges from our teammates in the towns.  We need to push (or nudge) the state government so that it pressures local governments to follow already enacted policy, and we need to convince the state government to commit resources to the effort.

At the same time, now that the policy has been officially enacted, we can hold mandatory state-funded workshops for municipal leaders, and emphasize why FSM is important to the cleanliness and healthiness of their towns.  If we succeed, at least with some, we can convince them to hold the state government accountable for the promises that it’s made – we persuade towns to ask for support, and then assist the state government in providing the very same support.

This sort of work implementing policy is difficult and frustrating: both the state government and local governments have dozens of major priorities, and attention may be a scarcer resource than money.  Allocating land, even in our pilot towns, takes months (at best!).  Implementing policies and regulations, seeking out contractors, getting citizens on board – each of those processes can take even longer.  Yet, at the end of the day, this is how policy is made real, and without work like this, words on paper are easily disregarded.