With more than half the population of Tamil Nadu living in the cities, it is imperative that Urban India addresses not just the toilets but the full cycle of sanitation, for both on-site systems and network systems, to meet the environmental and public health challenges. From proper management of human excreta, its safe and clean confinement, treatment, disposal to associated hygiene-related practices, it is important to take these critical steps in improving the quality of life in cities.  
 
There is no denying the fact that Urban India does face a shortfall in facilities for safe human waste collection, conveyance and treatment but the government of Tamil Nadu has been a pioneer in ensuring safety of not just the citizens, but also the marginalised individuals, labourers and most importantly, the frontline sanitation workers.  
 
Mr. Thirumudikari, Joint Director (Scheme), Directorate of Town Panchayats, envisioned the availability of safe sanitation and equitable service delivery in every part of Tamil Nadu, for all. Under his guidance, the department worked in full capacity to achieve equitable sanitation with a focus on Faecal Sludge Management (FSM). It opted for non-networked sanitation systems in the town panchayats and successfully devised the cluster approach where the treatment plant is shared by all. Irrespective of the size, they signed MOU's between Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) for operation and maintenance, ensuring last-mile service delivery for all.  


LEADERSHIP THAT ENSURED SAFE SANITATION IN THE PANDEMIC

Who fails to guard himself from flaw loses his life like flame lit straw,” , quotes Mr. Thirumudikari. (English Translation of an aphorism mentioned in Tirukkural, a classic Tamil language text.)

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Thirumudikari was also appointed as a Special Officer in the Chengalpattu District. This was an area that was highly impacted by the sudden surge in COVID-19 cases per day. Therefore, an integrated waste management approach focusing on sustainable solid waste management was essential. Hence, his team resorted to the non-networked sanitation systems in every town panchayat. The team promptly recognised the need for sanitation and FSM as essential services, and SOPs were created for the operation of Faecal Sludge Treatment Plants (FSTPs) and passed on to the ULBs and respective operators.

A clear plan was laid out to create a targeted healthcare and sanitation-driven communication campaign for generating awareness in the masses.

"We, in Tamil Nadu, have always believed that there should be an emphasis on empowering citizens by promoting citizen science and enhancing the role of locals in encouraging informed decision making", said Mr. Thirumudikari

It was very important to acknowledge the behavioural shift that happened during the pandemic in the hygiene practices among people at large. “With the mantra, prevention is better than cure, it made our job a little easier in the sanitation sector and hence, improved the standards of public health”, Thirumudikari added. 

Under his leadership, the region was divided into zones; they demarcated containment zones, and every area was marked and analysed for the spread of COVID-19 infected patients. Special efforts were put in to provide the public as well as the staff of the ULBs with preventive medication and immunity-building supplements. Medical camps were set up in places to support those infected with the virus. As a matter of fact, even the quarantined houses were kept in regular check by the ULB staff for the supply of daily needs and to help manage solid waste collection to ensure safety for all.

Safeguarding the Frontline Warriors


Since during the lockdown, only essential services – including sanitation and waste management – were permitted to continue, this put key workers in sanitation on the frontlines and exacerbated existing vulnerabilities. Sanitation workers are the backbone of the sanitation ecosystem, and maintaining the safety and well-being of our frontline warriors was another priority task at hand. So, under Thirumudikari’s leadership, every director in the ULBs was instructed to lend complete support for COVID-19 affected staff and their families. Testing, contact tracing and isolation of the on-ground sanitation workers were all done at the community level. Basic hygiene practices including frequently washing hands with soap or use of alcohol-based sanitisers, especially after handling human waste were a mandate. Also, appropriate PPE kits, including rubber gloves, head band, reusable masks, gumboots, and safety jackets were provided to everyone on duty.

“Having both space and capability to create such rapid and efficient measures were fundamental during the pandemic”, added Thirumudikari.

With sanitation being a crucial aspect of the public health challenges, Tamil Nadu’s COVID-19 response has been speedy and efficient in terms of inter-departmental coordination. All the ULBs were successful in updating, communicating, and maintaining case histories between departments. Social animators and Domestic Breeding Checkers (DBCs) worked diligently and monitored door to door situations, thus leading to a reduction in the infection.

 

GOING FORWARD

 

 

Currently, there are 50+ FSTPs coming up in the state serving 120+ ULBs. The future of urban sanitation is planned towards being more participatory, more localised, multi-disciplinary and user-focused.

The idea is to explore the potential of using sustainable and scalable solutions for a more successful, safer urban sanitation and equitable delivery in all parts of Tamil Nadu, despite sanitation being one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century, especially in developing countries like India.


National Faecal Sludge and Septage Management Alliance

The National Faecal Sludge and Septage Management Alliance is a collaborative body, convened in 2016 and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, working with governments and decision-makers across the country at national, state and city levels to drive safe and sustainable urban sanitation in India.

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