Environmental protection – a central theme of SBM-G

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World Environment Day that is observed worldwide on 5th June every year calls for collective, transformative action on a global scale to celebrate, protect and restore our planet.  ‘Only One Earth’ is the campaign slogan this year with the focus on ‘Living Sustainably in Harmony with Nature.’

That environmental protection has been the underlying theme of Swachh Bharat Mission Grameen (SBM-G), the Government of India’s flagship programme, right from the inception, is evident from the hygiene and sanitation achieved in rural areas that have declared themselves Open Defecation Free, also substantiated by results of numerous studies conducted to assess the impact of the Mission on the environment, groundwater and soil.

ODF campaign and the environment

Yes indeed, SBM-G has facilitated more than 11 crore rural households and more than 50 crore residents to gain access to toilets in more than 6 lakh villages.  Households in Open Defecation Free (ODF) villages have saved up to INR 50,000 every year and total benefits exceeded costs by 4.7 times for them, a UNICEF Report of 2018 further said.

Another 2018 report by WHO said that SBM-G saved lives as around 3 lakh diarrhoeal deaths were avoided; while a 2017 Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) Report found that SBM-G improved nutrition and productivity as there were less cases of stunting in ODF villages.  The Mission also helped families save money on medical expenses and Swachhata also secured safety and dignity of women (UNICEF 2017) as 96 per cent of women felt safer after getting a toilet at home.

Nevertheless, the overarching theme was its contribution to the environment.  A UNICEF Study of 2019 underlined the fact that SBM saves the environment as the study showed that there was ‘12.70 times less likelihood of groundwater contamination traceable to humans in ODF villages.’

Green concerns in SBM-G Phase II

If all these outcomes were a result of SBM-G Phase I; the emphasis on environmental protection is undeniable in Phase II of SBM-G which focuses on solid and liquid waste management to bring about visual cleanliness to villages across the country.

India generates enormous quantities of bio-waste including animal waste, municipal solid waste (MSW), agricultural waste, kitchen leftovers, crop residue and market waste. Biodegradable waste management is a component of SBM-G phase-II under which composting and GOBARDHAN are the preferred methods for managing bio-degradable waste in the rural areas.  Under GOBARDHAN, financial assistance of up to Rs. 50 lakh per district is available for setting up of biogas plants and so far, more than 370 community biogas plants have been completed.

A biogas plant besides providing clean energy and organic manure, offers several social and environmental benefits. It contributes to reducing negative externalities associated with organic wastes such as groundwater and soil contamination and emission of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Replacement of fossil fuels and untreated traditional solid biomass with clean fuel such as biogas for cooking, lighting and electricity generation help in curtailing greenhouse gas emissions as well as indoor air pollution.  Purified biogas or Compressed Bio Gas (CBG) has properties almost similar to compressed natural gas (CNG) and can be used in vehicles running on CNG without any modification in the vehicle. CBG can also be filled in cylinders and can become a commercial energy option for cooking and other industrial applications.

On the other hand, the Bio-gas slurry generated is environmentally friendly, with no toxic or harmful effects and can easily reduce the use of chemical fertilizers. The direct application of biogas slurry to soil is considered an inexpensive means of disposal and nutrient recovery for agricultural systems.  The slurry can also be further fortified through various treatments and technologies.

Under Plastic Waste Management, SBM-G supports Gram Panchayats (GPs) in creating awareness on curbing the use of single use plastic and effective management of plastic waste.  As per the 4 R’s, the first three R’s – refuse, reduce and reuse – are the responsibility of the households.  For the fourth R-recycle- the recyclable plastics need to be handed over to scrap dealers for further recycling, while non-recyclable plastic waste can be shredded/separated, following which the combustible fraction should be recovered at cement plants or used as bitumen in road construction or other recovery methods.

In many villages, plastic waste collected from households by the GP is transported to the village segregation shed. Thereafter, the GP coordinates with district/block officials to ensure timely transportation of the collected plastic waste from the village level shed to the Plastic Waste Management Unit.  DDWS has advised States/UTs to dispose of plastic waste, collected in rural areas in an environmentally friendly manner either by sending to the recyclers; for use as bitumen in road construction where plastic waste is mixed with heated bitumen; or disposed of in the cement kilns as supplementary fuel.

IEC campaigns have been launched focusing on curbing the use of plastics. So far over 14 lakh individuals across the country have participated in awareness activities to curb the use of plastics for a green environment.  Over 98000 GPs have passed resolutions to curb the use of single use plastics.

On-site systems are being promoted to manage greywater and blackwater, separately.  Greywater management in villages is planned to ensure environmental sustainability using the 3Rs principle of Reduce, Reuse and Recharge.  Further, the focus is on replenishing groundwater via the provision of soak pits (Soak pit, leach pits, magic pits, kitchen garden) or reuse by treatment systems such as waste stabilisation ponds, constructed wetlands, etc.; while giving appropriate importance to judicious use of water at households. Environment friendly, cost effective and sustainable technologies are being implemented for management of greywater emanating from rural households.

To strengthen the mission priorities, the government launched Sujlam 1.0 campaign (August 25, 2021) during which more than 10 lakhs soak pits were constructed in a short span of 100 days. Enthused by the huge success, Sujlam 2.0 was launched on March 22, 2022 (World Water Day) and so far, more than 14 lakhs soak pits have been constructed with community participation.  With such an effective Mission mode implementation, there is little room for stagnant water that would otherwise, lead to vector-borne diseases or contamination of water bodies.  The initiative not only enhances environmental sustainability, and recharges ground water level but also contributes to better public health.

With regard to faecal sludge management (FSM), the promotion of twin pit toilets has already been accepted as one of the environment friendly technologies for cost effective management of blackwater, emanating from toilets.  Further, a separate provision for faecal sludge management is incorporated in Phase II, enabling the safe management of waste produced from toilets.  This will focus on retrofitting of single pit toilets into twin pit toilets; provisions of leach pit for septic tanks to checks wastewater from entering into storm drains; urban-rural convergence for emptying, transportation and treatment of toilet waste; setting up new faecal sludge treatment plants in rural areas; and provision of trenching for isolated pockets.  These are a few strategies that are safe and affordable to manage faecal matter in rural areas.

Going by the IEC activities that are actively promoting SLWM; garbage dumps and cow dung heaps will soon be a matter of the past.  There is a growing awareness about waste to wealth and waste to energy initiatives and village communities are joining the bandwagon, to transform their villages and bring about noticeably cleaner surroundings.

In sync with SDGs

Given the above, contribution to the environment is the very essence of the Government of India’s programme which aims to meet the SDG goals well ahead of time.  In fact, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his speech at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in September 2015 said, “Much of India’s development agenda is mirrored in the Sustainable Development Goals. Our national plans are ambitious and purposeful; Sustainable development of one-sixth of humanity will be of great consequence to the world and our beautiful planet.”

India has played an important role in shaping the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This has meant that the country’s national development goals are mirrored in the SDGs. As such, India has been effectively committed to achieving the SDGs even before they were fully crystallized. As one of the forty countries that have volunteered to take part in the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) at the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) 2017, India appreciates the focus on ‘Eradicating poverty and promoting prosperity in a changing world’.

Clean and Green Village Initiative

More recently, the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation (DDWS) became a signatory to the joint advisory signed by as many as nine Secretaries to the Government of India on the localization of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) based on Theme 5: Clean and Green Village.   The letter indicates the willingness of the Ministries and Departments to provide full support under their ongoing schemes to this effort at the Gram Panchayat/Village level with the DDWS being the nodal Ministry for this theme.

‘Green’ refers to a world in which natural resources, including oceans, land, and forests, are sustainably managed and conserved to improve livelihoods and ensure food security, and most importantly protect the environment for future generations.  ‘Clean’ also refers to access to safe and adequate drinking water and sanitation services, low-pollution, low-emission world in which cleaner air, water, and oceans enable people to lead healthy and productive lives.  Thus, a GP that chooses to focus on becoming a Clean and Green Village, would need to have clarity regarding the preservation and maintenance of the components that cover water resources, and its link to rivers and streams, and land resources and soil health.

In order to become a Green Village, the GP would need to address ecological, economic and equity issues by bringing about changes through community level social regulations, cooperation, and their proactive participation for a green, clean, non-toxic, low carbon, self-reliant, eco-resilient rural India.  The Green Village initiative focuses on activities like tree plantation, organic farming, conservation of village ecosystems and biodiversity, promotion of new and renewable energy sources and including eco-friendly innovations.

Way forward for a Clean and Green Village : 

  • Awareness generation amongst the citizens on the importance of reducing wastage, ensuring sustainable production and consumption, reducing the adverse impact on environment
  • Promotion of measures within the GP that would reduce environmental pollution, such as reducing the use of plastics within the GP area
  • Taking steps to create an in-depth understanding of the term climate change and its impact among the Gram Sabha, Panchayat committees and other community volunteers
  • Mapping land use pattern, water bodies, forest, hill slopes, wetlands, degraded forest within the GP
  • Developing appropriate norms for sustainable utilisation of resources from common lands, water bodies and forests on materials like non-timber forest produce, sand, fish and water
  • Assessing the water needs, sources, schemes, solid and liquid waste being generated
  • Settling the water and sanitation goals and targets for the GP
  • Selection of appropriate technology for water supply and sanitation in the GP, based on participatory and area assessment
  • Ensuring maintenance of toilets, of public spaces, including those in markets and GP premises
  • Developing a comprehensive energy programme based on need assessment

Convergence, all round cooperation

These efforts would require the full support of Ministry/Departmental functionaries of Drinking Water and Sanitation, New and Renewable Energy, Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Rural Development, Land Resources, Agriculture, Animal Husbandry, Fisheries and Panchayati Raj among others.

In addition, if non-Governmental organisations, college students, youth organisations such as Nehru Yuva Kendra volunteers, etc., are also involved in the task of facilitating the GP to become a ‘Clean and Green Village,’ then the goal can be realised faster.

Meanwhile, with the support of development partners DDWS has developed technical resources – manuals, toolkits, flip charts and pocket books that provide information on all verticals of ODF Plus under SBM-G.

Only One Earth: 

All of us working with the Swachh Bharat Mission – whether at the State, the Central Government or the private sector – have a great opportunity to contribute to the nation.

“In the universe are billions of galaxies; in our galaxy are billions of planets, but there is Only One Earth,” was the message broadcasted in the days leading up to World Environment Day.  Regardless of how much we contribute to the climate crisis, we are certainly impacted by it – the current heatwaves, floods, droughts, air pollution and disease, are an indication of the same.  The time therefore is now – for us to do our bit towards environmental protection.


 Article written by Ms Vini Mahajan, Secretary, Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Ministry of Jal Shakti.

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