Madhu Singh

Sanitation Changemaker

Challenging Norms: Madhu's Journey to Becoming a Sanitation Trailblazer

Married at the age of 18, Madhu lived a quiet life in a joint family in Baldev Vihar, Lucknow, with her husband and three children. She built her life around her family and continued to live that way till one day her husband lost his job. This put her family in unprecedented circumstances with financial difficulties and Madhu was determined to see how she could solve for the same. She and her husband saw a growing demand for desludging in their locality and after speaking to a few businesses in their vicinity, they decided to take the leap and start a desludging tanker business of their own.

The business required heavy financial investment when they started it and both of them decided to invest their entire retirement savings into it with the hope that this venture will give them and their children the security they needed. Despite putting their entire savings into the business, they soon realized that they needed additional funds which led them to apply for a loan of of INR 7 lakh in Madhu's name from a local bank in 2013. The loan came through and thus, Madhu transitioned into becoming a businesswoman.

While the plan initially was for Madhu as well as her husband to run the business, fate had other plans for them. Her husband was offered a job as a security guard 75 kilometers away and keeping their financial constraints in mind, he decided to take the job. Suddenly, Madhu was left to take care of the business alone. De-sludging can be a gendered profession with mostly men running a business in this space across the country. Madhu defied societal norms by deciding to run this business with no help. Her decision shocked her children, her family, and society. However, her husband played a key role in negotiating with her ecosystem to create a space for Madhu to thrive and thrive she did!

The early days were challenging, with employees and drivers not taking her seriously. She handled business inquiries and negotiations over the phone. Maintenance issues, irregular tipping fees, and improper desludging posed additional hurdles. Through determination and a customer-first approach, Madhu mastered the nuances of the business and ensured the timely repayment of the tanker loan.

Madhu's courageous venture transformed her family's financial situation. Madhu credits Population Services International (PSI) India for forming the tanker operator association in Lucknow during the #ATF project. This initiative facilitated private operators' integration into public systems, addressing challenges like tipping fees, disposal sites, and registration. PSI's support during the COVID-19 lockdown ensured uninterrupted desludging operations, allowing registered Private Tanker Operators like Madhu to continue their businesses and support their staff.

Madhu's role in the executive committee of the Septic Tanker Operator Welfare Association reflects her success and acceptance in the predominantly male profession of faecal sludge management. Exemplifying the power of determination, Madhu believes in challenging traditional livelihoods to change societal perspectives and encourages more women to join the movement for sanitation reform in the country.