By the IIC-ASCI team

It is mid-March in the town of Palacole in Andhra Pradesh’s West Godavari district where three cesspool workers, Mosid, Naganna and Sethi Babu prepare to desludge a local septic tank. These three workers have the critical, yet often times unsafe and unglamorous profession of removing and disposing of waste from septic tanks. The three of them drive their vacuum truck to a small house on the southern side of Palacole, where they park as close as possible to the septic tank to begin the emptying process.   

Palacole is located in the southern, coastal region of West Godavari district, surrounded by vibrant, green rice fields and coconut groves. Despite the idyllic surroundings, the town struggles with the challenge of how to effectively manage its septic waste. While many strides have been made over the past few years to improve sanitation and cleanliness under Swachh Bharat Mission, there is still significant progress to be made in improving fecal sludge management (FSM). Toilet coverage and usage has increased dramatically in Andhra, but the question remains of where does the waste ultimately end up. In the vast majority of cases, the septic waste still ends up in local water bodies and fields. Efforts are required to look further down the sanitation value chain, beyond toilet construction, to figure out how to ensure that waste is safely and hygienically disposed of. In this process of improving FSM, cesspool workers have an essential role to play.

After removing the cover from the septic tank, Mosid and Naganna use a pole, water and washing detergent to loosen the waste inside. Once the waste has been sufficiently liquefied, they insert a fifteen-foot tube connected to their vacuum truck and turn on the motor. It then takes about fifteen to twenty minutes for the truck to suck up the sludge. They perform this whole process without wearing any type of protective gear.   

In Palacole, there is one FSM operator with eight vacuum trucks, each with roughly a 3,000L capacity. There are also workers, drivers, and administrative personnel employed in his cesspool emptying business. In total there are twenty families in the town that are financially dependent on this enterprise. Three workers take part in each septic tank emptying job. Two of them do the majority of the cleaning work, and the third drives the vacuum truck. Depending on the size of the septic tank, they may need to make multiple trips to complete the job and charge accordingly.

The eight trucks in question were acquired only fifteen years ago. Before the trucks were purchased, the current cesspool workers made their livings as manual scavengers. Manual scavenging refers to the practice of entering drains, septic tanks or sewerage pits and removing the septic waste by hand. Needless to say, this practice had devastating consequences for workers, and in 2013 the Government of India passed the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act in order to outlaw it.

While major strides have been made towards improving the lives and human rights of these workers through the passing of this act, those who have made their professions as cesspool workers are still vulnerable to a range of health problems, alcoholism and abuse. The workers in Palacole do not use any sort of protective equipment, and often perform a desludging with bare hands while wearing shorts and chappals. These unsafe practices put them at high risk of contracting skin, gastrointestinal and other devastating health issues.  

Once the desludging has been completed, Sethi Babu, Naganna and Mosid drive to the outskirts of town to dump the waste in a nearby drain. Currently, there is no mechanism in place to facilitate the safe and hygienic disposal and treatment of fecal waste. As there is no treatment plant or prescribed method of disposal, the workers have no other option but to dump the waste they have collected in local drains or open fields. In Palacole, most of the drains surrounding the two towns eventually flow into the Godavari River, which provides a critical water supply to towns and villages downstream.

As they begin to dump waste in a drain along the sign of the road, an enraged resident arrives yelling abuse. The man is a buffalo farmer whose animals drink from the drain now filled with septic waste. He approaches the van and turns the switch to stop the emptying of the truck. The workers know better than to try and stop him, and they drive off quickly before the situation escalates any further. Too often in these situations the threats of violence become acts of violence and it is highly common for the workers to be abused and violently beaten. Another cesspool worker in Palacole was once beaten so badly that his skull cracked open. These workers receive no protection from the abuse they face and often do not have the financial resources to properly treat the injuries they sustain on the job.

Twenty minutes away by auto from Palacole on the banks of the Godavari River is a town called Narsapur. The fecal sludge management business here is run primarily by a woman named Venkatalakshmi. It is unusual to come across a woman in this profession, much less one who is in charge of her own operation. Venkatalakshmi started up her business in order to provide for her family once her husband became unable to work and her son-in-law left her daughter. Apart from one competitor, she dominates the FSM market in Narsapur and has purchased the rights to advertise her services in high trafficked locations throughout the town. Despite her own personal triumphs, her business and workers voice many similar concerns that Palacole’s FSM workers have, including the increased incidence of diseases, maltreatment and psychological hardship. Venkatalakshmi herself has been beaten several times. On one occasion the beating was so violent that she lost three teeth.

Another unfortunate outcome of working in the FSM business that can be witnessed in Narsapur is the high presence of alcoholism amongst workers. Venkatalakshmi’s husband used to be in the fecal sludge management business, until his alcoholism caused his business partners to remove him from their enterprise. Some of Venkatalakshmi’s male employees have said that alcoholism is common among cesspool workers due to the challenging and undesirable nature of the job. The emotional hardship of doing such a dangerous and thankless job has taken its toll on many. The effects of the physical abuse these workers sustain while disposing of the waste they collect also has an impact. The stories of the workers and operators in Palacole and Narsapur highlight just one example of the human cost of incomplete sanitation that comes with lack of regulations, limited community awareness and insufficient infrastructure.

It would be simplistic and misguided to suggest that there are easy solutions to the challenges and maltreatment that these operators and workers face, however, there are currently efforts underway to improve fecal sludge management practices, which has the potential to create a positive impact on their practice. Capacity building and government initiatives can work to ensure that operators have access to and use proper protective equipment and desludging methods to protect them from contracting diseases. The planned building of fecal sludge treatment plants in Palacole and Narsapur would provide a safe and hygienic way for workers to dispose of waste without polluting the environment or risking their personal safety. Moving forward in the goal to achieving a Swachh Bharat (Clean India), it is critical that interventions are developed and implemented keeping in mind the challenges facing so many of these unsung heroes in the sanitation sector.    


Link to desludging video: