Infrastructure consists of the materials and systems that manage sewage, roads, electricity, water and other services. Wastewater treatment—or the safe disposal of human fecal waste—is an important part of contemporary infrastructure and critical to ensuring the health of populations. When infrastructure does not meet the needs of the population, policymakers refer to this as a “gap” in the infrastructure. A “gap” implies a lack of coverage, or a physical breakage. Solutions are focused on closing or fixing the gap between covered and uncovered areas, between one piped system and the next.
In India and many other countries, wastewater infrastructure is a complex constellation of approaches, priorities, and elements that display multiple levels of success and failure. In addition to pipes, bioreactors and other treatment facilities, open or underground earthen drains carry untreated sewage to surface waters and render living spaces dangerous and unhealthy. Caste discriminations direct who carries out the dangerous and stigmatizing labor involved with cleaning up fecal waste and transporting and disposing of this waste when infrastructure systems are broken or non-existent. To create safer facilities, wastewater flows require scientific and systematic measurement, institutional coordination to ensure connectivity among components, and engineering innovations, especially in crowded urban spaces. These conditions mean that infrastructure is more than a physical or material problem, conceived in terms of presence or absence. Infrastructures are dynamic systems with social, political, and cultural elements that create a patchwork of projects and priorities. A review in WIREs Water considers infrastructure disarray as a more appropriate metaphor for the sanitation challenges in India today.
India’s significant sanitation challenges are addressed by a variety of actors. While the government is spearheading the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) and the Namami Ganga Abhiyan (Clean Ganga Mission), non-state actors and their communities are confronting, reproducing, or grappling with disarray. The review by presents three cases of struggle with infrastructure disarray. One case describes how a religious group, called the Art of Living Foundation, used bioremediation to eliminate the odor and break down the biological oxygen content in a large wastewater drain. Although civil society protest through a series of court actions did shut down the unauthorized bioremediation it was unable to reduce the dangerous toxic wastewater flows in this drain. The second case recounts how a religious and science leader in Varanasi measured the sewage levels in a large drain and pushed officials and experts to think differently about flow, technology and wastewater treatment. Nevertheless, mismatches between flows and new facilities perpetuate disarray. The third case explains why a human rights leader struggles to end the ideologies and practices that force Dalits, the most oppressed of the caste groups in India, to clean up the messes created out of disarray.
Moving away from the notion of “infrastructure gap”, the concept of disarray points to the range of engagements, successes, innovations, challenges, and failures in living with wastewater.
Featured image: Dasashvamedha ghat, one of many bathing sites downstream of wastewater drains in Varanasi.
Kindly contributed by Kelly D. Alley, Jennifer Barr and Tarini Mehta.