Cleaning up India, One Septic Tank at a Time

The trials and triumphs of five female de-sludging operators (DSOs) in the south Indian city of Tiruchi.

M. Sumathi, 40, is one of the five women de-sludging operators in Tiruchi, Tamil Nadu. She took over the daily management of Keerthana Septic Tank Cleaning from her husband a decade ago, and says like other de-sludging operators, she and her team have often faced social discrimination while at work. Today, she is proud to see her son join her in the business, while her husband has diversified into retro-fitting the heavy-duty vehicles. Photo: Nahla Nainar

Read the article written by Nahla Nainar for The Hindu.

Published the 8th march 2023

On any given day, Parameshwari Gunasekaran, 53, can be found serving customers at her meat stall on Bharathi Street in Tiruvanaikovil, a historic temple town near Tiruchi, in the state of Tamil Nadu.

But when her phone rings and the caller asks for Saranya Septic Tank Cleaning, she hands the cleaver to her husband and gets her team of workmen ready for the job.

Gunasekaran is a de-sludging operator (DSO), one of just five women in Tiruchi who offer commercial septic tank cleaning services. With 33 years of experience, she is one of the veterans in the field.

Tiruchi has been at the forefront of modernising city sanitation services for several decades, working on issues such as creating a sustainable community-based toilet network in order to abolish open defecation.

DSO companies are crucial in cities such as Tiruchi, where the old sewer network is being revamped as part of the government’s Smart City Mission. The DSOs remove the sewage and decant it at designated stations in the city for further treatment, an essential service while  underground drainage (UGD) is installed in phases.

“We opened our meat shop in 1991,” says Gunasekaran. A boy who used to work on the DSO trucks suggested that my husband and I should give it a try too. We started on a trial basis in 2005 and bought our first truck in 2008. It was an old cargo truck that we purchased in Perundurai, and we had it customised in Madras (Chennai) with the addition of a compressor and hose. At the time, UGD was non-existent in Tiruchi, so we were quite busy.” 

Tough profession

Gunasekaran’s choice of profession is unusual—the hard physical labor involved in deep cleaning services usually keeps women out of this field. And there are other challenges as well. For example, sewage management in India is notorious for “manual scavenging,” the practice of using workers to clean, carry, or dispose of human excreta. Though it was banned by law in 2013, it is still common in small cities.

Women DSOs say that customers try to tempt workers with tips to get into the tanks when they are not there, so they make it a point to be present on the site from the beginning. “Manual scavenging is a crime for which both the company and the customer will be penalised. Keeping an eagle eye on erring customers and workers is part of the business,” says Gunasekaran.

To ensure a safe working environment for DSOs, a First Aid Manual has been developed by Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) in collaboration with Indian Red Cross Society and St. John Ambulance.

“We have signed a memorandum of understanding with the Tiruchi Corporation and DSOs on their operations,” says Sugantha Priscilla, senior specialist, City Wise Inclusive Sanitation, IIHS Tiruchi. “It covers issues such as third-party insurance for all vehicles and GPS trackers to ensure that the sewage is emptied in the right places.” 

There are other workplace horrors, says M. Sumathi, 40, who took over the daily management of Keerthana Septic Tank Cleaning from her husband a decade ago. “Most blockages in tanks are caused by used sanitary napkins and other personal hygiene products. Workers often have to remove and pack them for proper disposal in sacks before they can continue with the sewage removal. It is awful to watch, no matter how many times one has sat through it. I just wish people would be more sensible about what they throw down the drain,” she says.

Nearly all the DSOs say that they have faced social discrimination while at work. “There are people who refuse to give us a glass of water because we are doing sanitation work. This attitude is demeaning, but we have to put up with it if we want to earn our living,” says Sumathi.

Competitive business

There are now approximately 70 DSO companies in Tiruchi. Setting up a business requires old trucks retrofitted with vacuum tanks and hoses, costing around Rs. 15 lakh (US$ 18,000). Though they are cheaper than new ones (costing upwards of Rs. 25 lakh, US$ 31,000), the retrofitted vehicles also tend to break down more often.

Prices for cleaning are fixed arbitrarily in what has become a highly competitive business. DSOs get paid anywhere between Rs. 800 to Rs. 1,500 per load, and operating costs include a Rs. 30 fee paid to the pumping station at each visit.

Mounting debts are what decided K. Aravalli, a mother of three, to set up her DSO Sri Sai Enterprises from her home in Ponmalai area. “My brother was running a DSO in Pudukottai, so I decided to start one here in 2013 by pawning my jewels and raising Rs. 18 lakhs (US$ 23,000) for the first truck,” she says. Aravalli now owns two de-sludging trucks and manages a team of four workers.

As more parts of Tiruchi come under UGD coverage, DSOs are adapting their client base by fanning out into rural areas and neighbouring districts. Gunasekaran, for instance, works with a group of 15 colleges in Perambalur (56km from Tiruchi), as well as local hospitals and hotels. 

But practical problems persist. “Getting skilled mechanics to repair the trucks is difficult,” says Divya Manimaran, 27, who runs Sri Hari Septic Tank Cleaning with her husband, a former worker for a DSO in Tiruchi. “The parts for the vehicles have to be sourced from other cities, and since there are so many breakdowns, repairmen are always in demand. To raise the money to pay them, we get loans from moneylenders and sometimes end up spending more on repairs than we make in income.” 

Working conditions are difficult, especially in older buildings where septic tanks may be completely covered over with concrete. “Finding and opening the tank’s lid can itself take hours in old homes because we have to break up the cement with pick axes and spades,” says M. Vijaya, 38, a DSO entrepreneur who took over from her father-in-law in Tiruchi’s Chintamani area.

Personal success

In spite of the difficulties, women DSOs who have overcome self-doubt and social discrimination have achieved many personal goals. Gunasekaran, for example, has educated her four children and two nieces with her earnings. “I had to drop out of school because my parents couldn’t afford it. But I’m glad my kids could study up to college,” she says.

Sumathi’s family has also benefited from her work. Her husband has diversified into retrofitting septic tank cleaning trucks, while her son, who earned his MBA, has recently joined his parents in the business.

“Some of our family members were a little sceptical when we started 23 years ago because it was seen as an ‘unclean’ job, and certainly not a job for a woman,” says Sumathi. “But now, inspired by our success, they have also started DSO businesses.”