Barriers to Expanding Centralised Sanitation Systems in Emerging Cities: Notes from Doddaballapur in Karnataka

Kumar D S ( and Anu Karippal ( are research assistants at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment, Bengaluru.
18 April 2020

In peri-urban towns, households manage their sanitation waste locally through soak pits and septic tanks. However, in administrative planning, the long-term solution to manage household sewage is through a network of underground drainage systems feeding to a centralised sewage treatment system. The shift from local, decentralised systems to a centralised one is uneven and costly. This case study of Doddaballapur, a town on the outskirts of Bengaluru examines the barriers to making this shift. 

Nearly 55% of the global population lives in urban areas and it is expected to increase to 68% by 2050. It is projected that rural to urban migration will add 416 million people in urban spaces by 2050 (United Nations 2018). Providing basic amenities to the growing urban population is a huge challenge and often there are delays in the delivery of basic services, such as water supply and sanitation, in towns and cities. In emerging towns, households respond to the lack of adequate water and sanitation services by investing in household-level solutions, such as borewells to draw groundwater and construction of on-site sanitation systems like soak pits and septic tanks. However, with towns expanding, the response to managing sanitation needs is to undertake massive infrastructure investment that connects households to a centralised system through a network of pipelines and centralised treatment plants. For example, Bengaluru plans to invest in building new sanitation treatment plants (STPs) to meet the needs of a growing population (Theja 2018). 

While having low cost and resource requirements, decentralised sanitation solutions are viewed as temporary by policymakers (Biswas and Jamwal 2017), and centralised sanitation has been increasingly introduced in peri-urban areas (Prasad 2018). However, this transition is costly, uneven, and results in a waste waterscape, where a mix of centralised and decentralised systems coexists. Taking the case of Doddaballapur, this article outlines the barriers to such a transition.

Study Area

Doddaballapur is a city municipal council in Bangalore Rural district of Karnataka. According to the 2011 Census, the population of the town is 93,105 with 21,937 households (Directorate of Census Operation 2011). Nearly 90% of the households are reported to have toilets while others practice open defecation. Traditionally, households have depended on soak pits to dispose of blackwater. However, in the 1990s, the City Municipal Council (CMC) instructed households to dispose of household wastewater (black and grey) into the open drains adjacent to their houses [1].  This resulted in the pollution of water bodies. In recent times, across cities, the focus of policymakers has shifted towards finding solutions to water pollution resulting from poor sanitation systems (Kelkar 2015). 

With the aim of adequate management of waste water disposal, protection of groundwater and surface water sources, reuse of water, and to create a good physical environment, the underground drainage system was introduced in Doddaballapur by the CMC in 2017.  The World Bank–funded Rs 35 crore project [2], being carried out by the Karnataka Urban Infrastructure Department and Finance Corporation (KUIDFC). 
The project aims to connect 14,000 households to an underground drainage network. According to the junior engineer at CMC Doddaballapur, an STP with the capacity to treat 12 million litres of waste water a day has been constructed in Majarahosahalli, which is located five kilometres outside Doddaballapur town.

In an effort to introduce a centralised sanitation system for the people, the CMC has undertaken a publicity campaign by putting up banners and notices around the CMC building. Till date, 5,000 households have been connected to the centralised underground drainage (UGD). 

To understand the gap between planned connections (14,000 in number) and actual connections (5,000), we interviewed 20 households from three wards in Doddaballapur, during January-May 2018 [3].  Most interviewed households belong to the lower-middle-class section. We employed structured questionnaires and unstructured interviews. Qualitative data regarding the underground sanitation network have been collected. In the following sections, we detail the potential barriers that households face in connecting to a UGD network.

Source: Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE)

Barriers to Centralised Sanitation in Doddaballapur

Since 2017 only 5,000 households in Doddaballapur have been connected to the centralised system, about a third of the total number of households that are expected to benefit from the system. Even if all the 14,000 households were to take a UGD connection as per the design, more than half of the households will remain without an underground sewerage connection. Based on the interviews and questionnaires, three types of barriers have emerged in making this transition: financial, perceptional, availability of water, and institutional barriers. 

Financial Constraints 

From our primary interviews with the households, it was evident that the process of taking a UGD connection is expensive for most households. To get the connection, households have to pay a one–time cost of Rs 5,025 to the CMC and a flat rate of Rs 45 every month towards maintenance. Additionally, the households also pay up to Rs 3,000 for materials and labour costs. 

As per the state domestic product of Karnataka and district domestic product of Bangalore Rural, the average per capita monthly income of Bangalore Rural for 2013–14 has been Rs 9,757 (Directorate of Economics and Statistics 2016). In such a financial context, taking a UGD connection is an additional expense for most households. Moreover, households that already have a soak pit connection may have lesser incentive to pay the non-trivial costs to connect to a system that does not change their everyday sanitation experience.  

Perception about the effectiveness of UGD

Despite multiple awareness campaigns conducted by the CMC about underground drainage, households form their perceptions about the UGD based on their interactions with other community members. 
Many households feel that connecting to the underground sewerage network requires constant maintenance. As one respondent said, 

“If we get a UGD connection, it requires more water to flush out the waste. I have seen in many places that it gets stuck in the chamber creating a foul smell. But soak pits take at least 15 years to fill, and are easy to maintain and economical too. There aren’t any cases of blockage either.” (male respondent aged 40) 

Connecting chambers of the UGD network often overflow, causing undesirable outcomes for nearby households. For example, one of the respondents, when asked why his household has not connected to the UGD said, 

“One of my friends, who is staying in Kuchappanapete, had got a UGD connection. There was frequent overflowing of black water and runoff on the road resulting in contamination of piped water as well.” (male respondent aged 35)  

Most households interviewed feel that soak pits are economical and require less maintenance compared to the UGD. Furthermore, due to weak monitoring of household behaviour by CMC, households without soak pits may continue to let out black water into open drains instead of connecting to the UGD network. Disposal of black water into open storm drains is a common sight in Doddaballapur (Shivendra and Ramaraju 2015).        

Inadequate Water Supply

According to the CMC, the residents of Doddaballapur receive only 60 litres of water per capita per day (lpcd) [4],  which is less than half of the standard domestic water usage (135 lpcd). According to residents, tap water is supplied only once in six to seven days. 

While water from borewells and tankers are available as substitutes, they are not evenly accessed by everyone as the average per capita income is low in rural areas. This poses a challenge for the smooth functioning of UGDs as households perceive that a large quantity of water is required to remove the solid waste. 

Institutional Challenge 

The CMC plans to connect 14,000 households to underground drainage by 2030. According to the 2011 Census, there are 21,937 households in Doddaballapur. The total number of households in Doddaballapur had already crossed 21,000 in 2011 and it could be twice the number by 2030. 

There is a persistent gap in the number of proposed UGD connections and the actual number of households in Doddaballapur. Moreover, this gap may increase as the population grows more rapidly than the reach of the UGD services. With many households continuing to use soak pits or disposing of black water in open drains, and with the population rising, connecting 14,000 households (as per the design) will not completely address the problem of surface water and groundwater pollution. 

Way Forward

Even as megacities struggle with the management of sewerage through their aging and leaking centralised STPs and the UGD, the model of moving from local disposal of black water to a centralised STP is being used in emerging towns and cities. Our study argues that to address the sanitation needs of an emerging city, we need to take into account various barriers that exist, such as financial constraints, perception about the UGD system, water availability, and institutional challenges. Hence, without sufficient understanding of the barriers, the goal of addressing surface and groundwater pollution through sanitation management is challenging. The barriers in connecting to a UGD network can shed light on how sanitation and waste water concerns in peri-urban towns can be addressed.

The authors would like to thank Durba Biswas, fellow, ATREE for her inputs in bringing out this article, and Sheikh Mustak, former coordinator at ATREE, for his assistance with Doddaballapur map design.

Kumar D S ( and Anu Karippal ( are research assistants at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment, Bengaluru.
18 April 2020