Swacch Bharat Abhiyan in peri-urban areas: Is groundwater being contaminated?

A study in Bengaluru’s Nelamangala town found that poor sanitation structures are known to leach faecal contaminants into the groundwater.
To its credit, India has a vision, in its Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, to eradicate open defecation and provide safe sanitation.
But in India’s growing peri-urban areas, Swachh Bharat’s one-size-fits-all strategy of building toilets may end up doing more harm than good.
These areas depend on groundwater for drinking and other domestic needs, and on on-site sanitation systems to manage human waste.
But poor sanitation structures are known to leach faecal contaminants into the groundwater which can adversely affect human health.
Nelamangala has a population of 37,232 and according to Census 2011, nearly 98% of the households here have access to some form of on-site sanitation system (either soak pits or septic tanks), which means that a large number of the families dispose of their waste (black water) locally underground.
With nearly all middle and high income families having access to on-site sanitation systems, there is now a growing number of soak pits in this town that are close to borewells, which can pollute the local drinking water.
By only focussing its efforts on building toilets to ensure safe sanitation, without considering the cost of unsafe sanitation systems, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan may compromise access to safe drinking water, in turn adversely affecting human health.
Septic tanks are proven to be better alternatives to soak pits, and are easy to implement in rural and peri-urban towns where the segregation of black and grey water takes place at the household level.
Our study in Nelamangala found that irrespective of household income levels, all individual homeowners built soak pits and almost all of them were unaware of the difference between soak pits and septic tanks.

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