India: Big push for small cities

By Prakhar Jain (email) and Aditya Bhol

The run-up to elect a new government brought sanitation to the fore of public conversation in India. Last month, Prime Minister Modi declared sanitation as a national priority, announcing ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’, a sanitation programme dedicated to creating clean India by 2019 as a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary. Whether or not this plan succeeds may depend on whether it is simply a repackaged programme such as the ‘Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan’ that was focused entirely on building toilets in rural India, or a renewed commitment to improve sanitation in both the rural and urban areas.  As India urbanizes, demand for effective and sustainable sanitation services will increase. India, with 11% of the world’s urban population currently, accounts for 46% of global urban open defecation [i]. While other developing countries like China, Vietnam, and Peru have already achieved open defecation free (ODF) status in urban areas, India still lags behind. The situation is particularly abysmal in small cities (population below a million) where close to 17% of the population defecates in the open as compared to 4% in large cities (population greater than a million) [ii]. The 2011 national census has shown that these small cities represent more than 91% of total urban open defecation in the country. If we are to catch up, the key is to immediately turn our attention towards small and medium-sized cities.

While access to toilets remains a big issue, improving sanitation services in urban areas requires an integrated approach that includes treatment and disposal of human waste. This integrated infrastructure is particularly lacking in smaller cities. According to a report published in 2009 by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) on wastewater treatment in India, large cities have about 51% of required wastewater treatment capacity as compared to only 17% in small cities [iii]. The untreated wastewater pollutes the environment particularly drinking water sources such as lakes and rivers, resulting in health hazards. Lack of access to adequate public health facilities and resources in small cities further aggravates the problem.

Government investments in the sector through national programmes and schemes have favoured large cities. One such example is of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) that was initiated by the Government of India in 2005 to create infrastructure in cities. Out of the total INR 240 billion (US$ 3.9 billion) approved for sanitation projects so far, less than one-third has been allocated to small cities [iv]. It’s time to spread the investment span of these schemes more evenly.

In addition to targeted projects, capacity must be built in the smaller cities. Urban local government bodies in large cities usually have dedicated engineering wings with qualified engineers and technicians. Apart from enjoying easier access to central government and state government funds, they have the capacity and experience to approach donor agencies or raise money from the market. Sadly, sanitation as a sector is relatively low on their agenda when compared with other sectors; infrastructure projects such as flyovers, metro systems and bus rapid transport systems usually take precedence. On the other hand, local governments in small cities are likely to prioritise sanitation as a key development objective over other sectors. Despite lack of technical and institutional capacities and a serious dearth of funds, they are likely to have a greater appetite and lesser inertia for using innovative and alternative models when compared to large cities. With some national and state government assistance and effective local leadership, some of them can hope to create implementable, successful, and scalable models of sanitation service delivery which other cities can emulate.

There is a simple economic argument, one that the new government should not overlook: based on estimates by the World Bank and our research, India could be losing close to 2.6% of its national GDP every year due to inadequate sanitation in urban areas [v]. These economic impacts include direct monetary losses incurred from healthcare expenditure, money spent on accessing toilets and indirect imputed productivity losses which include access time costs, mortality losses and so on. Our analysis further show that share of small cities is between 53%-69% of the total urban losses. Moreover, with a high number of villages transforming into towns over time, the economic costs due to inadequate sanitation from urban areas shall continue their steady ascent.

All the aforementioned factors including insufficient treatment capacity, big city bias of central funding programmes, lack of technical and institutional capacities, high appetite for non-conventional systems and high economic losses signal the need for greater policy focus on small and medium-sized cities. Small cities across India need to create better infrastructure, improve service quality, and strengthen the institutions responsible for achieving and sustaining these goals. As the new government makes sanitation a priority, it should take note to correct the relative ignorance of achieving sanitation in small cities. The time has come to bring the resources and commitment it has shown to improve systems in the Delhis and Mumbais to bear on the Kochis and Cuttacks.

Prakhar Jain is researcher with the SCI-FI: Sanitation initiative of the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

[i] World Health Organization and UNICEF 2014. WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) for Water Supply and Sanitation. Database. URL

[ii] Census of India 2011

[iii] Central Pollution Control Board, Government of India 2009. Status of Water Supply, Waste water generation and treatment in Class I Cities and Class II Towns of India. New Delhi.

[iv] Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India 2014. JNNURM Database. URL

[v] Aditya Bhol 2014, Economic impacts of sanitation across city-sizes , Working paper, Centre for Policy Research

One response to “India: Big push for small cities

  1. Pingback: “India: Big push for small cities” | A Better Toilet

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