WASH | Small towns in India need sustainable models for development

Addressing the pressing issues concerning water and sanitation services in small towns assumes paramount significance. By grasping the challenges, we can pave the way for healthier, more sustainable, and flourishing communities
Last Updated : 21 September 2023, 05:41 IST
Last Updated : 21 September 2023, 05:41 IST
Last Updated : 21 September 2023, 05:41 IST
Last Updated : 21 September 2023, 05:41 IST

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India is home to around 17.76 per cent of the world’s population, but has only 4 per cent of the world’s fresh water resources. It is estimated that about 200,000 people die every year due to inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene.

In 2016, per person disease burden due to unsafe water and sanitation was 40 times higher in India than in China and 12 times higher than in Sri Lanka. With the country generating huge amounts of wastewater annually, mismanagement of wastewater, lack of liquid and solid waste management, poor sanitation conditions, and poor hygiene habits have contributed to a significant portion of the population suffering from water-borne diseases.

Small towns are more vulnerable than others, marred with incapacities and poor onus. Most of the utilities pertaining to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) are dealt with parastatals in small towns. Besides, the big-ticket programmes announced by the Union government, mostly cater to the needs of large cities.

Since the Census of India of 1981, the definitions of different settlement types have persisted largely unchanged, even though the emergence of census towns challenges current measures of urbanisation.

India has over 8,000 municipalities and cities with about 470 million residents. Only about 600 have a population above 80,000. The remaining 7,400-odd small municipalities (Census 2011) are already facing, or will face, water scarcity soon. Despite possessing surface water resources, they are highly dependent on groundwater resources for day-to-day survival. Their challenge is to fulfil the demand through the existing but depleting resources, and the municipalities need affordable and robust systems and unconventional solutions involving recycling, recharge and reuse of water, etc.

As per a report from the Central Pollution Control Board of India (CPCB), sanitation services have largely been ignored and only 19 per cent of the sewage generated is treated. While wastewater infrastructure is gradually improving, it has essentially focussed on centralised approaches in large cities — leaving lots of small pockets unserved.

Very low capacities

Institutionally the small municipalities are poorly equipped for the responsibilities of water supply and sanitation services as well as regulating institutional and financial matters. According to Niti Aayog, about 76 per cent of census towns and 52 per cent of statutory towns do not have a master plan in place. These towns have rudimentary capacities — their personnel who are largely civil engineers lack relevant experience in institutional reform, water governance including decentralisation and service delivery options and a customer-facing orientation to services and delivery. The weak leadership and lack of harmonisation in the government’s efforts lead to disordered and contract-related implementation.

The municipal financing for WASH falls into two broad categories: own-source revenues (for urban local bodies (ULBs)) and intergovernmental fiscal transfers (for state and Centre). Municipalities generate own-source revenues mostly through property taxes. While municipalities in India assess the tax amount based on location, property size, and other factors, they do not have full control over the tax rates, as the power to determine property tax slabs rests with the state government. Other own-source revenue streams include market fees or licensing fees.

The main mechanism for intergovernmental fiscal transfers (IGFTs) is the Finance Commission, which allocates funding from the Union government to the states based on population, and this funding is then distributed by state governments to municipalities. Finance Commission funds include both tied and untied transfers. Currently, of the total 15th Finance Commission (2021–26) funding recommended for municipalities with populations less than one million, 30 per cent is allocated for drinking water, 30 per cent for sanitation, and the remainder is flexible.

India has an IGFT of 0.45 per cent of GDP which is the lowest among developing nations: Mexico (1.6 per cent) or South Africa (2.6 per cent). This disparity puts undue pressure on smaller municipalities and municipal councils to generate their own revenue for which they often are miserably ill-prepared. The grants are divided into basic and performance-linked categories. The basic grant, which is 80 per cent of the total amount, provides unconditional support to municipalities for the provision of civic services including water and sanitation. Municipalities scoring well on performance criteria, including increases in own-source revenue and water and sanitation service benchmarks, can access additional performance-linked grants.

Unlike larger towns that might have a percentage of their population connected to centralised sewage systems linked to treatment plants, most smaller towns in India lack sewer infrastructure or treatment facilities. Consequently, the absence of treatment or disposal options leads to the improper discharge of faecal sludge and wastewater into the environment. According to a 2022 report from the CPCB, there exists a substantial gap in treatment capacity within different city classes based on population size. In cities classified as Class I with a population exceeding 1 million, the treatment capacity gap stands at approximately 67 per cent. Similarly, in Class II towns with a population range of 50,000 to 100,000, the treatment capacity gap is notably higher, at around 95 per cent, highlighting a significant disparity (see table below).


Addressing the pressing issues concerning water and sanitation services in small towns assumes paramount significance. By grasping the challenges, they confront, recognising the criticality of accessible water, and exploring potential avenues for improvement, we can pave the way for healthier, more sustainable, and flourishing communities.

Equitable clean and safe water, with adequate sanitation facilities, transcends mere necessity — it constitutes a fundamental right. But the current situation paints a sorry picture when it comes to meeting the SDG6 targets. By investing in infrastructure, fostering community engagement, adopting cutting-edge technologies, and championing responsible water usage, small towns can surmount obstacles and revolutionise their water and sanitation services to cater adeptly to the needs of their burgeoning populations.

Small towns play a pivotal role in the holistic development of nations. By guaranteeing access to basic services such as water and sanitation, we empower these towns to contribute even more potently to economic progress, environmental sustainability, and social well-being.

(Tikender Singh Panwar is former Deputy Mayor of Shimla, and Rwitwik Sinha is a sanitation engineer working with BORDA.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

Published 21 September 2023, 05:41 IST

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