Venkatalakshmi is a resident of Narsapur, Andhra Pradesh where she has been running her septic tank cleaning business for over 25 years. A skilled businesswoman, Venkatalakshmi, recognised the opportunity to run a business, cleaning septic tanks and seized it. She secured financing to purchase desludging trucks, hired drivers, painted the trucks to make them appealing, and advertised them all over town.
At multiple points, her decision to work in the field of sanitation has been questioned. People have been quick to label her work as ‘dirty’. She and her team have also borne insults and abuses while disposing of waste – the social stigma around dealing with faecal matter has made these risks inherent to their job. Even her everyday activities of travelling by a truck, handling clients, independently operating a business are seen with suspicion. Venkatalakshmi has on numerous occasions encountered disparaging comments like “Why is this woman doing a man’s job?”
Venkatalakshmi, however, remains adamant in her defiance of such thinking. She refuses to feel disgusted or ashamed by her work, rather considers it to be of crucial importance to society. She has been a beacon in defying gender roles in sanitation-based livelihoods. She secures details of the client’s location, type of septic tank and sends one of her two desludging trucks (vehicles which allow for mechanised cleaning of pit latrines and septic tanks) to their homes. Impressed by her thoroughness and attention to detail, her clients are appreciative of her efforts. She has been recognised by the municipality as one of their empanelled desludging operators, after getting her vehicle registered as a licensed vehicle of the municipality, it has become harder for people to shame and point fingers at her.
Narsapur which is home to nearly 15,300 households has no sewage system; toilets are connected to pits and septic tanks that require emptying when full. Earlier, faecal sludge used to be removed manually from septic tanks and was dumped on the roads in the open, a practice which was environmentally hazardous and undignified for sanitation workers. Venkatalakshmi has devoted over 25 years of her life towards building and maintaining a sustainable business model for the safe transportation of faecal sludge from the containment unit to the treatment plant. It has been a herculean step towards minimizing the detrimental health and environmental impacts of indiscriminate dumping of human waste in water bodies and land.