sludge operators meeting (2)15 February 2017, Coimbatore: An orientation programme was held for 21 sludge operators from Coimbatore at the Hotel Mesable last Saturday, 11th February, 2017. The program began with an introduction by Sekar, Secretary of the Coimbatore Sewage Transport Lorry Association. After a round of introductions Vinitha, Environment & Sanitation Analyst – TNUSSP, explained the various roles of TNUSSP and the purpose of organizing this meeting. A copy of the Septage Management Guidelines was distributed. Participants voiced concerns and challenges that they face during the process of desludging, transport and disposal. They also suggested possible solutions that would increase their efficiency.

Keystone’s first venture in an urban setting, TNUSSP has been working for the past year to understand and support the existing sanitation system in two town panchayats of Coimbatore. This orientation programme had been organized to understand the challenges and expectations of sludge operators and reinforce awareness regarding the Fecal Sludge Treatment Plant (FSTP) at Perinaickanpalayam.

sludge operators meeting (1)With Vinitha and Dinesh heading the discussion, the sludge operators slowly began vocalizing on the challenges they face in their daily work routine. As the discussion progressed, it was understood that the sludge operators faced challenges from competition from vehicles from other districts being registered and operating in Coimbatore. The city of Coimbatore requires 50 septage lorries but currently twice that number are operating, because of which there is undercutting of rates to attract business. This affects their income. Besides this, there is also the very steep yearly registration fee of Rs 18,000 as well as the amount (Rs 100-500) that they have to pay the farmers every time they dispose sludge in their agricultural fields.

They said that many multistoried buildings and apartment complexes follow the practice of connecting their septic tanks to the main underground drains. This causes blackwater contamination of greywater in the drain which usually flows into a river or a water body. Ideally, this should be contained in the septic tank to be removed by the septage lorries to the fecal sludge treatment plant (FSTP). There is only one Sewage Treatment Plant in Coimbatore which is quite remote and the operators are mostly unable to make it to the plant within the operating time of 11 am to 4 pm because of traffic within the city limits. When constructing residential complexes or individual homes, most people do not take into account that facility for regular desludging has to be provided for. The operators said that in many areas, the containments are located in the interior of the house making it difficult for them to do their work and residential areas do not have any dedicated parking space for the septage lorries.

Suggestions from them included prohibiting the registration of vehicles from other districts with the Coimbatore Corporation and making institutions and establishments must be held accountable for the exfiltration of chemical effluents into septic tanks and drainage. The second suggestion is because the operators are compelled to desludge anyway, and are held guilty at the decanting station for bringing in effluents. After the discussion and suggestion, Vinitha gave a brief presentation on the upcoming FSTP  in Perinaickanpalayam and its benefits. All the sludge operators conveyed their interest in supporting a decentralized treatment system which would be beneficial for them.

The operators are fully aware of the hazardous nature of their job and cite the instance of a man who accidentally fell into a drain and died as there was chemical acid effluent from a factory nearby that had been emptied into the open drain. They wistfully say that they brave all these odds and yet are denied basic dignity while doing their job. They are frequently asked to go about their business of desludging at night when no one can see them and are generally treated without respect by the very people whose homes they are keeping clean.  The TNUSSP team is working hard to generate awareness regarding the importance of the sludge operator’s job and hopes that community mindset will change in the near future and see desludging as it is – an essential service to society.