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The Road to SDG 6 In India

Hajira Mehreen Qurishe | Chennai, India

PC: The Economic Times

Back in 2018, I was on my way to attend one of my best friend’s wedding. The ceremony was going to take place in a small town in India called Thuvarankurichi where I had to travel by bus. I hate traveling by bus for long distances, as it gets uncomfortable without any proper rest stops in between. Especially if you add a bunch of diabetics such as my parents in the mix, it’s a recipe for disaster. It was a solid six hours of travel from Chennai. The roads were surrounded by thick trees on either side of us. As it was nighttime, these roads were not properly lit in some areas. So, it was not a surprise for me that I could not find a proper rest stop for the first five hours. Most of the passengers, especially women were uncomfortable not being able to relieve themselves. But none of us made a fuss as we knew what to expect from the trip. It’s a norm for all of us. But it shouldn’t be. This situation could have been avoided if there were proper rest stops in regular intervals. This is something that I could say I have experienced quite a few times. But back at home, I do have a clean latrine to use. The schools and colleges where I studied were equipped with private sanitation facilities. Most of the public places I visit such as malls, café, theatres, etc.... do have proper washrooms most of the time. It's not a running concern over my head the whole day.

But the reality for most Indians is not the same as mine. With almost a population of 1.38 billion as of 2020, access to clean drinking water and proper sanitation has still been a huge issue among the masses even 75 years after gaining independence. A basic right such as access to clean drinking water is still denied to 163 million people, the highest in the world. India also faces several challenges on water resources due to climate change, says a new study by WaterAid, a global advocacy group on water and sanitation.

Why Is This Important?

According to the WHO – UNICEF report (2010), India has the highest rate of open defecation. Most girls avoid going to school if there are no proper sanitation facilities. Sanitation makes a positive impact on female literacy. According to a UNICEF study, for every 10 percent increase in female literacy rate, a country's economy can grow by 0.3 percent. Thus, sanitation contributes to the social and economic development of society.

A safe water supply is the backbone of a healthy economy, but it doesn’t seem to be prioritized as much as it should be.

It is estimated that water-borne diseases have an economic burden of approximately USD 600 million a year in India according to the JMP 2017 update report. Access to clean water supply and sanitation means being able to avoid exposure to countless diseases and will sustain the economy. Access to clean drinking water is vital to health as it controls enteric diseases and boosts the overall immunity of a person’s health too.

In 2015, India achieved 93 percent coverage of access to safe water supply in rural areas. However, with the shift from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to the Sustainable Developmental Goals (SDGs) the new baseline estimates that less than 49 percent of the rural population is using safely managed drinking water according to the JMP 2017 update report.

India and SDG 6

In 2015, the international community agreed to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - a list of 17 goals targeted to solve the problems of poverty, hunger and tackle the effects of climate change, among others. The SDGs were set in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly and are intended to be achieved by the year 2030. All 17 SDGs are integrated which means that the outcome in one area will affect all the other areas. Through the pledge to "Leave No One Behind," countries are committed to fast track their progress in an effort to achieve development which will balance social, economic, and environmental sustainability.

SDG 6 deals with universal access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene to all in the next 15 years. Indeed, SDG 6 (Clean water and sanitation) is a common developmental agenda in today's world. But issues like water scarcity, untreated wastewater, flooding, poor sanitation facilities doubled with India’s massive population and its sheer diversity makes the implementation of policies a little difficult.

The Government of India is working in close coordination with State governments to realize SDGs by the target date of 2030. Several of the Indian government’s initiatives can be directly linked to SDG 6. These initiatives include the ‘Water framework law of India 2016, National Rural Drinking Water Program (NRDWP), Accelerated Urban Water Supply Program (AUWSP), Nammame – Gange (National Mission clean Ganga), and National water policy’.

In 2014, the central government of India launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India) campaign on October 2nd to eliminate open defecation and manual scavenging in the next 5 years. According to media reports, the government has spent more than USD 30 million to improve the sanitation facilities across the country to support this goal. The budget still fell short for such a mammoth task. So, the budget was revised several times each year for the allocation of the scheme. The government also took initiatives to include tech usage to turn waste into energy and to use tech solutions to clean fecal matter instead of sewage workers.

Impact Report:

In 2019, the Indian government claimed the success of the sanitation revolution whereas the report by National Statistical Office (NSO) contradicts the government’s claim.

The report pointed out that only 71.3% in rural areas and 96.2 % in urban households had access to toilets in 2018. The data also showed that the households which had access to a latrine, 3.5% in rural households and 1.7% in urban households never used it due to inadequate water supply. Nevertheless, the Swachh Bharat mission was a revolutionary move by the government due to which there is a rising demand for the usage and construction of toilets across the country. According to the toilet coalition board, the sanitation economy in India is set to rise to an estimated USD 62 billion in 2021.

The NRDWP programme’s target was to provide 35% of rural households with water connections and 40 litres – two buckets of water per person per day. However, this plan which considerably failed even after spending almost 800 billion due to poor execution and weak management according to the August 2018 report released by the government’s audit team.

The World Bank has approved a 5-year loan to the ‘Nammame - Gange' project worth USD 400 million to develop and improve infrastructure from further pollution of the river basin. So far, 313 projects have been sanctioned for the mission in order to preserve India's ecosystem.

Challenges Ahead:

There are many challenges a country has to face in order to provide access to clean water supply and latrines. Some of them are: water scarcity and shortages, water supply contaminated by toxic substances and risks of open defecation

1. Water Scarcity and Shortage

A country is said to be under water stress when the annual per capita water availability is less than 1700 cubic meter. India’s per capita water availability as seen in 2021 is at 1486 cubic metre as compared to 2011 Index which showed 1545 cubic meter indicating that India has been water stressed for over a decade now. The water availability per person in India is reducing due to the increase in population.

One of the fourth largest Urban conglomerates in India is Chennai, and despite being a coastal city with four major reservoirs, it ran out of water in 2019. The groundwater was extracted extensively, both within and outside Chennai city limits, and it resulted in water shortage due to over exploitation.

This was a major wake up call for Chennai and other cities which could potentially run out of groundwater if severe actions were not taken. The state of urban cities were simple examples of how rural areas are affected much worse. Many farmers have started to opt for less water consuming crops such as ‘pearl millet, cow peas, bottle gourd and corn’ which consume 80% less water, labour and electricity unlike ‘rice’. The downside of cultivating these crops is that the government doesn’t have a set price for them unlike rice which is a major contributor to the food industry as most Indian dishes revolve around rice.

2. Water Supply Contaminated by Toxic Substances

Over the years, chemical waste from factories is dumped carelessly on water bodies that are directly linked to water distribution channels. Recently, on November 2020, residents of Ulhasnagar and Ambernath in the Thane district of Maharashtra woke up feeling nauseous and unable to breathe. This was found to be caused by the river surrounding their area, which has turned red due to the constant dumping of toxic, chemical waste over the years as reported by India Today newspaper. No action has been taken against the tankers and factories responsible for this even though complaints have been filed numerous times. This is just a little glimpse into many incidents which have been taking place in India for a very long time.

Due to poor maintenance and absence of a proper sewage management, 38 million Indians suffer from waterborne diseases like typhoid, cholera and hepatitis every year. Around 70% of waste water goes untreated and each day more than 40 million litres of wastewater flows directly into India's lakes, rivers and ocean. Eventually the untreated water reaches the groundwater supply which is already facing a shortage.

3. Risks of Open Defecation

The Swachh Bharat's mission to end open defecation by building toilets have steadily shown progress but still it's not a complete success as the inadequate water supply makes people wander back to bushes to attend to their nature's call. The lack of awareness on the health risks poses a huge challenge in motivating the people to use latrines as they have been culturally accepting of open defecation for decades now, despite it being a breeding ground for various diseases. Approximately 800 children under the age of five die every day due to diarrhoeal diseases caused by unsanitary conditions.

It also poses a huge risk to safety especially for women who use sites like open fields or the side of a railway track. They are twice as likely to get raped when compared with women using a home toilet, according to the study conducted by Aprov Jadhav from the University of Michigan in a research paper published in Bio-Med Central Journal.

According to another study conducted by Anjali Adukia called Adukia 2017, by analysing through government programmes these data reveal there are real benefits to simply building sanitation facilities at more schools. Even though both boys and girls benefit from private sanitation facilities, the lack of it, majority of the time impacts a girl's education. Due to this most girls quit school once they reach puberty and if they don’t, they tend to miss key tests during their periods, which leads to their expulsions. Many girls don’t feel safe from relieving themselves behind the bushes, considering the risk factors and parents also restrict their daughters from getting education.

Organizations that are Helping to Achieve SDG 6:

1. Gramonnati Trust

There are several Non-Profit Organizations (NGOs) which are actively contributing to help accelerate India's goal to achieve clean drinking water and proper sanitation. One such organization which caught my eye during my research on this paper is ‘Gramonnati Trust’. It is a social enterprise which works to aid rural Indians by providing education and technological assistance, coinciding with some of the SDGs. The enterprise currently has five major projects: providing food provisions to old age homes and orphanages, bringing technology to rural classrooms, working to promote women and ex-soldiers as farming entrepreneurs, training farmers with new techniques incorporating new technology and giving water purifiers to rural areas for sustainable water sources.

One of their major projects TamRas is a water purifier which aims to provide clean and safe drinking water. Padma Venkat, 53 and her team of researchers at Transdisciplinary university (TDU), Bengaluru, India have worked on ways to develop a low-cost water purifier that can be accessible to low-income Indians. According to an interview with ‘YOURSTORY’, Padma has mentioned that her inspiration behind creating a sustainable product to purify water came from the realization that most waterborne diseases especially among low-income citizens could be avoided if there was a sustainable and affordable product which could easily curb the problem. The idea for TamRas came from how Indians traditionally stored water in copper or silver containers. She and her team focussed on how Indian medical heritage could be leveraged into making a sustainable product.

According to Ayurveda texts drinking copper rich water ensures proper functioning of different organs and several metabolic processes. She incorporated this knowledge into designing her product. Once the research was completed, She and her team took the product for field tests with the help of Canada Grant and with assistance from professors of McGill University. The field tests showed a significant drop in bacterial count of the water. Its limitation seems to be that it can only purify microbial contamination as it cannot remove physical or chemical impurities.

The water purifier consists of a 15-litre copper vessel that can purify water in eight to 10 hours. Preferably advised to leave overnight as the water is ready for consumption purpose in the morning. Each unit costs 1500 rupees (20 USD) which is very cheap as it lasts a lifetime and needs no electricity or fuel unlike commercially produced water purifiers which costs somewhere around 4000 to 6000 rupees with warranty for less than 10 years. This product would be immensely useful in rural areas as it would be a great investment to ensure healthy clean water supply.


SATO's low cost and eco-friendly toilets have been installed in many Indian states and are a sustainable solution to India's sanitation problem. Since 1986, Marachi Subburaman from Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu has been working to improve the lives' of people through his non-profit organization “SCOPE”( Society For Community Organization And People's Education). At the age of 69, he realized better income doesn’t always mean better living conditions. He found that people tend to spend so much money on medical bills as the lack of sanitation posed a huge threat to people's health.

So, he developed a series of toilets called `ECOSAN` which have two pits in which the waste is channelled to farms for agricultural purposes. But as the design was not user friendly, he couldn’t launch it. When he came across SATO's V-trap toilets in New Delhi, he could finally launch his idea. SATO is a part of LIXIL corporation, a global leader in housing and building materials, is into manufacturing eco-friendly and low-cost toilets. The green toilets need less than 1 litre of water when conventional latrines use almost 15 litres of water per flush. The twin- pit system also helps in minimizing clogging and allows for water conservation.

Influential Water Warriors:

1. Vedant Goel and Yusuf Soni

Vedant and Yusuf are IT professionals and entrepreneurs from Pune, who met at University and have been doing impactful work since then. They both are the founders of ‘I need Sai’ a social organization which aims to teach the youth, the sustainable use of resources and importance of water conservation. Both of them travel to schools throughout Maharashtra to continue their water conservation campaign. Their sessions are impactful to the children in a very positive way that the students started recycling water in their bottles for gardening and the cleaning of washrooms in their schools which was once done by using freshwater. The parents also have claimed that their children now close the taps when brushing their teeth and prefer to take bath using just a bucket of water instead of showering.

Vedant and Yusuf have also been recognized in the respected Limca Book of records for having gathered 5011 children to participate in ‘My teeth-better teeth, better health’ a campaign focused on teaching young children the importance of dental hygiene.

2. Prof. Priyanand Agale

Professor Priyanand Agale who is the founder and President of ‘Eco needs foundation’, an organisation of young people striving for environmental conservation and an eco-revolution were able to transform a small village called Dhanora into India’s first smart village. Dhanora is a small village of Rajasthan which was devoid of basic needs such as sanitation, internal roads, lack of access to portable water, non-availability of water conservation system, etc.... His foundation completely tried to understand the village's problems and came up with a solution. According to the Prof. Priyanand Agale, he believes our villages are under developed as they are not properly planned. His idea of smart village encompasses five specific facets of development which are redevelopment, retro fitting, green field, e-pan and livelihood through which he re-designed the entire village.

Priyanand has also pioneered a series of eco revolution conferences throughout Asia in which many have resulted in important environmental commitments by conference participants. For instance, the 2011 India eco-revolution conference resulted in the declaration for River Conservation.

Some Low-Cost Sustainable Solutions:

1. Water Seer

A water seer obtains water from the surroundings. The moisture content in the air is absorbed and condensed by employing appropriate temperature differences. The water is then collected underground and can be extracted by a water pump for daily use. A water seer can be installed anywhere. It produces more than 10 gallons of clean drinking water every day. It uses no chemicals or power of any kind. Due to its simple construction, it is inexpensive and maintenance free. However, it can't produce the expected amount of water in arid regions as the dew points are low especially in the morning due to the humid climate. The price is around Rs.9000 (USD 135) which could be bought through community funding’s when used in a rural area. As most villagers walk miles to get drinking water every day. Installing them would be a welcome move to an already cracked heels of many such villagers.

2. Digitization of Water Supply

This method has been adopted in some countries with water scarcity. The key point in wanting to set up sustainable solutions is to more than utilizing the set solution, sometimes it’s simply saved what we already have. There is no way to ensure that water is not getting wasted despite its shortage and it’s not easy to monitor every single drop. The digitization of water supply simply involves installing a digital meter and a tap card at all water facilities to ensure that the daily limit has not been surpassed. If it seems too restrictive, then it simply means we need to conserve more water and be conscious of every drop. Having regulated checks such as this especially on urban cities will be more useful as over exploitation of water tend to take place at cities where the annual recharge is twice the supply.

Will India Achieve its SDGs by 2030?

Even though India has been progressing on its SDG goals steadily, it would be illusionary to say that India could achieve its target goals by 2030 considering how much work still has to be done. According to the “Standard Chartered SDG Investment map” the total investment that the country needs to make by 2030 is a whopping USD 2,633.9 billion. Out of which USD 192.2 billion is for clean water and sanitation alone. As 24% of the people still don’t have access to clean water and sanitation the act of closing this gap by 2030 requires investment of USD 20 billion, said the report.

The already fluctuating Indian economy which was hugely impacted by COVID-19 will have hard time trying to achieve even one SDG by 2030 which would be a mammoth task for India’s GDP right now.


India may have been known for its wealth long, long ago, but in today’s world, India does not have its wealth to flaunt but its competitiveness in striving to be better than before. India hosts a huge, diverse set of young minds waiting to shine.

With simple, innovative and sustainable solutions and constant awareness on how essential our basic commodities are, there is a possibility that India will realize its true potential.

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