The link between wastewater management and environmental quality in rural India; insights for Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin

The link between wastewater management and environmental quality in rural India; insights for Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin

Anjali V. Raj and Priyanka Jamwal

The wastewater generated in rural areas is a mixture of greywater, livestock waste and sometimes blackwater (child faeces and urine). This wastewater is often channelled into open stormwater drains or fed into kitchen gardens/fields. Open stormwater drains are either diverted into a ditch/collection pond that fertilises agricultural fields or fed into surface water bodies through open channels. The wastewater from these drains is of high strength due to the presence of kitchen rejects (containing oil and grease) and livestock waste. Hence it is a major threat to ground and surface water resources if not managed properly. 

On our recent visit to S.M. Gollahalli, a village in Doddaballapura taluk of Bangalore rural district, we found the scenario there was no different. Open stormwater drains were receiving greywater from kitchens and bathrooms and livestock wastes from small livestock facilities adjoining the houses. The village has an existing household waste collection, segregation and disposal system and hence solid waste (except livestock waste) was not getting mixed up in the drain. A few metres away from the habitation, near the fields, a part of the wastewater from the drain was diverted into small collection ponds. Farmers use this wastewater to irrigate and fertilise their agricultural fields. The rest of the wastewater continued to flow through the ditch and fed into rajakaluves (channels or drains that link one lake to another, constructed to drain off excess water and storm water into water bodies) that lead into the Arkavathy River. 

Greywater outlet from individual households fed into the stormwater drain

To know the villagers' perspective on open channels carrying wastewater, we asked them if they felt the open drains were a nuisance or a threat to public health. Some of them complained about foul smell and mosquito breeding but they also mentioned that as long as the drain is flowing they were not worried. To ensure this, each household cleans the part of the drain near their houses once in 2 to 3 days, preventing blockage. Meanwhile, the Gram Panchayat cleans it only once or twice a year. Also, rainwater and any excess or wastage from the drinking water supply line ensure constant flow in the drain. The villagers did not perceive open drains as a health concern; they did not correlate the incidences of malaria and diarrhoea in the village during the monsoon to the wastewater drain despite this being a major issue in many villages.

Wastewater from the drain diverted into a collection pond

There are numerous studies reporting the contamination of water resources (both groundwater and surface water) from domestic pollution sources such as greywater drains, leach pits, septic tanks and livestock waste. In Gollahalli village, we found a few manure piles on private lands and also on common government lands dumped for curing. Surprisingly, some of these piles were very close (< 3 m) to the groundwater sources like borewells that supply drinking water to the village. Although these sources are deep, there is still a risk of contamination during monsoon when the water table rises and leachates from these dumps infiltrate into the water table. While most of the villagers collect treated water from the Water ATMs (RO) for drinking, there are still many who use water directly from borewells for potable use due to various reasons. Since water quality monitoring in rural areas is sporadic, seasonal groundwater contamination might go undetected and thereby negatively impacting the health of the villagers. 

Manure pile dumped very close to a functional borewell

When villagers were asked about the possibility of manure heaps contaminating water sources, some reported that they place the dumps away from the water sources to prevent contamination and some said they did not consider livestock waste as a threat to drinking water sources. This might be because of age-old traditional practices that use cow dung or manure for different domestic purposes and as fertilisers, which makes handling or presence of these wastes innocuous.  Even though the gram panchayat occasionally clears manure piles near water sources and prohibits dumping in these areas, some villagers still continue to dump their livestock waste here. A question that surfaces when we look into livestock waste management is about the safe lateral distance between the waste and the water source to prevent contamination. When there is no clarity regarding the safe distance between pollution sources (like waste dumps and leach pits) and water resources it is difficult to design management measures that ensure source protection. 

Even when the water sources are free of contamination or are not vulnerable to contamination from waste/wastewater sources, they still have a risk of contamination along the distribution network. In the village, it was observed that in some areas, drinking water supply pipelines were submerged in stormwater drains in which domestic wastewater flows. There is a high risk of contamination of water supply channels and consecutively risk to public health in case of leakage or breakage in the pipeline. With the provision of piped water supply to every household in rural India under the Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM), greywater generation will increase significantly.  Hence it is imperative to design and implement interventions to manage wastewater in rural areas where domestic wastewater is a threat to the rural drinking water supply. 

Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin (SBM-G) in its second phase (2019) focuses on solid and liquid waste management in rural areas. SBM-G plans to manage livestock waste and other organic solid waste generated in the villages through the deployment of Biogas plants (GOBARDHAN scheme) and greywater generated from the kitchens and bathrooms through greywater management at the household or community scale. However, stormwater drains contaminated with livestock waste dispersed along the concrete roads/pavements are still of concern. Will the GOBARDHAN scheme prevent villagers from dumping livestock manure near the water sources? As of now, Gollahalli village is yet to be covered under SBM-G and the villagers continue to practice their traditional methods for waste and wastewater management. Hence the extent and effect of SBM-G in terms of pollution source management and prevention of drinking water source pollution is yet to be seen.  


This field study was conducted as a part of the REAL-Water project. We would like to acknowledge the financial support from the United States Agency for International Development (Agreement no. 7200AA21CA00014). We express our sincere thanks to Lakshmikantha N. R. (ATREE-CSEI) and Chidananda Murthy for their immense help during the field visit and Umesh anna (ATREE) for driving us around the village. We also thank the villagers of S.M. Gollahalli and Yekashipura for sharing the information about water supply/ waste management and allowing us to click field photographs.