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A delegation of researchers and sanitation professionals from seven African countries landed in Chennai on Thursday to learn about Tamil Nadu’s sanitation model, study its pioneering practices and take home systems that can be replicated in their local context.

Organisations such as OVERDUE (with researchers from the University College London, U.K., and stakeholders in seven African cities from Mozambique to Sierra Leone and Tanzania), L’être égale, Cord of Congolese Women for the Equilibrium of Households/Gender in Action (Democratic Republic of Congo), Gender, Parity and Women Leadership (Ivory Coast), SiMIRALENTA (Madagascar) and Observatory for Gender and Development of Saint Louis (Senegal) are partaking in this learning exercise hosted by the Indian Institute of Human Settlements (IIHS).

In the two-week programme, they will get to understand the principles of Citywide Inclusive Sanitation, visit improved community toilets under the programme, study the scaling and institutionalising of faecal sludge management (FSM), visit treatment and containment facilities and interact with sanitation workers and women’s groups involved in the processes.

“The value of being here together is to learn from the context in which we see a lot of similarities. We have on the one hand a historical bias towards a great system that serves a minimal percentage of the population. This is part of the colonial legacy where we have two tiers of cities and systems; what used to be the infrastructure to serve the white population now serves mostly the wealthy. Typically, we find in these (African) cities that 80% of investments serve about 20% of the population. What we want is to have more elements to wield the case for a very different way of advancing just sanitation. We want to go beyond this idea that it is only about access to more adequate toilets; it is only a small part. Working throughout the whole sanitation service chain is essential even to close the loop,” says Adriana Allen, Development Planning Unit, UCL, and head of OVERDUE project.

Ms. Allen points out that there are very few initiatives across the world that have set a precedent at scale, like Tamil Nadu’s sanitation model. “You either find initiatives that work on inclusive sanitation but only in one-off cases or one that is working on scaling up sanitation very much with certain biases. So having a progressive agenda on sanitation that can talk to gender, talk to investment and have the ambition to implement and change policy, and have this constant translation of policy to practise is unique,” she details as reasons for wanting to study this programme.

While Tamil Nadu may not rank on top of the Swachh Bharat list of clean States, it is the first State to draft and implement operative guidelines for septage management. Rules for this came into effect earlier this month. It is also one of the first States that looked into the entire sanitation chain at the policy level — instead of just focusing on public/community toilets as deliverables, points out Kavita Wankhade, Head – Practice (Governance and Services), IIHS.

IIHS, through its technical support unit titled Tamil Nadu Urban Sanitation Support Programme (TNUSSP), is facilitating this exchange with the African delegation.

Full Chain Covered

“The key thing is that sanitation is a full chain — there are toilets, the faecal waste has to be collected and disposed of. Tamil Nadu has tried to do the whole chain and it has done it at scale. Just in terms of population, we have already covered (within the sanitation chain) 15 million; that is not a small number,” she points out.

Ms. Wankhade credits the State for exploring different methods of waste processing and disposal to suit the needs of diverse demographics — high-density/low income settlement area to peri-urban to rural communities.

Tamil Nadu is pioneering in certain aspects of sanitation management. “One is making use of existing facilities in the form of STPs (sewage treatment plants) and using them to process faecal sludge with certain infrastructure modifications. Tamil Nadu has been doing it for decades. Second is the cluster approach, where one FSTP (faecal sludge treatment plant) serves several urban local bodies. Now, T.N., is also talking about integrating rural local bodies like that,” she says.

OVERDUE and other organisations have experimented with innovative solutions tailor-made for their needs. Adriana mentions Flexi Funds, which allows various levels of subsidies to make sanitation facilities affordable across the board, and simplified sewer systems, which is a much more flexible option in places where only 1% to 25% of households are connected to traditional systems of disposal. With this learning programme, they are hoping to address both capacity building and advocacy, where their work with local governments (particularly women mayors across Africa) can benefit.