In the cities of Bihar, not even 1 per cent of the generated sewage undergoes treatment, while only 16 States in India have urban bodies with the capacity to treat at least 25 per cent of the total sewage generated. Despite the efforts of the union government to encourage sewage treatment, local governing bodies in cities face challenges in treating sewage due to the high capital expenditure and operation and maintenance costs associated with treatment plants.

The Jal Shakti Ministry told Rajya Sabha early this month that it is the responsibility of States and urban local bodies to treat sewage and keep rivers clean. But for civic bodies reeling under financial burdens, setting up Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) has become a daunting task. There are many repercussions of untreated sewage flowing into water bodies, but the biggest concern is its impact on health. It is estimated that the lack of wastewater treatment leads to over $15 billion spent to treat water-borne diseases in India.  

STP cost

STP expenses rise significantly with the implementation of more advanced treatments. The average capital cost for STPs fluctuates between ₹60 lakh and ₹300 lakh per Million Litres per Day (MLD), depending on the technology employed. In addition to capital costs, the estimated monthly operation and maintenance costs start at a minimum of ₹30,000 per MLD. Also, conventional treatment technologies, excluding natural treatment methods, require a substantial and uninterrupted energy supply.

NITI Aayog’s white paper titled ‘Urban Wastewater Scenario in India’ shows that the gap between the generated sewage and present treatment capacity is very large in all classes of towns and cities in India, and the gap increases in the order of decreasing population.

Private investment  

The High Powered Expert Committee (HPEC) for estimating the investment requirements for urban infrastructure services has earlier recommended that the PPP mode be tried out in sectors such as water distribution, sewage treatment plants, solid waste management, and urban transport. But civic bodies have failed to attract private players.

“The local governing bodies in small cities are struggling to put basic infrastructure in place due to limited financial resources. These cities have hardly any plans to set up new STPs and attract investments in the project,” said one of the senior government officials in the Maharashtra government, adding that private players are not interested in working with local governing bodies on STPs because of the long average break-even time, which is generally 3 to 8 years.    

“The cost of the utilities is rarely covered by the revenue from the STPs (may include dried sludge and treated water) due to high uncertainty in demand,” the NITI Aayog document mentions.  

According to NITI Aayog, private sector investments in wastewater treatment in India are deterred due to higher upfront capital investment and highly unpredictable revenue streams. There is a huge demand risk involved with the low water tariffs and little regulation governing user charges, making collecting user fees difficult.

Untreated sewage

The Central Pollution Control Board’s (CPCB’s) assessment for the year 2020-21 reveals a sewage generation of 72,368 MLD in India’s urban areas. Despite having an installed sewage treatment capacity of 31,841 MLD, the operational capacity is only 26,869 MLD, falling significantly short of the generated load. Of the total urban sewage produced, a mere 28 per cent (20,236 MLD) undergoes treatment.

This alarming statistic implies that a staggering 72 per cent of wastewater remains untreated and is consequently discharged into rivers, lakes and groundwater.