The present conjecture that our future is urban has a long past. In the modern era, perhaps as old as the Industrial Revolution or at least since the turn of the 19th century.
By the Local Government Act of 1894, Britain created a system of urban and rural districts with elected councils. Before the Act was passed, UK had sanitary districts, which were formed under a separate Public Health’s Act, an act that specifically aimed at reforming the public health and sanitation conditions in the urban areas. The reform in 1894 ended urban and rural sanitary districts and merged them with the Municipal Corporation. The turn of the 19th century was perhaps foreseeing an urban future in which greater responsibilities were needed to be entrusted with the local bodies instead of issue based jurisdiction. However, there was an undercurrent for these reforms - the looming disease outbreaks due to deplorable public health conditions. The reforms were aimed at containing these epidemics and stopping them from spreading in urban areas.
During the British rule, India also saw similar institutional structures for public health and sanitation. There were sanitary boards and later sanitary commissioners and then dedicated sanitation departments in all the provinces. Through the Local Self Governance Act of 1885, local bodies were formed and they became responsible for sanitation in the cities. After independence, public health and sanitation largely stayed with the state governments. With the 74th Amendment, public health was devolved as one of the 18 functions to the local bodies, affirming the importance of public health as an urban priority. Twenty five years have passed since the amendment and a century since the Local Government Acts, and now the public health issue seems to have come to the forefront in India. And the undercurrent is again the same-the worsening public health situation in cities. Sanitation and sewerage projects form the majority of the projects in the centrally run AMRUT scheme. While AMRUT is being implemented in 500 Indian cities, Swachh Bharat Mission, a scheme focused on sanitation, is being implemented throughout urban and rural India. It covers all the statutory towns in India.
Public health and Sanitation are the key drivers of urban change catching the imagination of wider public as well as authorities. In the past year, in our visits to multiple small and mid sized cities, we found that they had one thing in common - new approaches to sanitation. Cities of all sizes and vintage are making efforts of door to door waste collection, segregation and disposal. We have heard at least dozen different sanitation related songs that were played by the waste collecting vehicles in different cities. And also heard various innovative clean-city caller tunes. These are small changes but are representative of a bigger shift in the perception of local bodies’ role, especially small cities, in achieving larger public health outcomes.
Cities like Ujjain, Chas, Ambikapur and others are in top 20 national rankings of Swachh Sarvekshan. Cities like Bhadson, Panchgani, Bundu, Siddipet have topped the zonal rankings. Chances are that many of us wouldn't have heard of these cities before. So while sanitation is coming to centre stage, it is also bringing those cities to centre stage with it.