World Toilet Day 2023: Tamil Nadu’s Divya Manimaran, a desludging operator, is redefining gender roles & championing sanitation with pride

From navigating societal prejudices to owning her septic tank cleaning business, Trichy-based desludging operator Divya has emerged successful in the industry.

ByRoshne Balasubramanian

Published Nov 19, 2023 | 9:00 AM Updated Nov 19, 2023 | 9:00 AM

Divya has been a desludging operator and a septic tank lorry owner for a decade. (Supplied)

At 8 am on a weekend, the enticing fragrance of naatu kozhi rasam fills 29-year-old Divya Manimaran’s kitchen. Infusing each step with a lively rhythm, she prepares the family’s beloved dish, investing her heart into every detail.

Suddenly, her phone rings. The voice on the other end inquires, “Sri Hari Septic Tank Service?” 

Without hesitation, Divya swiftly concludes her kitchen activities, contacts her team, mobilises them, boards her yellow truck and heads towards LIC Colony in Trichy.

Divya is a Desludging Operator (DSO) and one of the few women providing commercial septic tank services in the city.

Also Read: Meet 3 extraordinary women leading the menstrual health and hygiene movement in the South 

Beyond the flush

Arriving at the location, she swiftly disembarks from the truck and instructs her driver to lower the 30-foot hose. “Each foot weighs about 1.5 kilos. Initially, I struggled to pull the hose into the septic tanks, but now I am an expert!” she shares.

Clad in a saree and equipped with essential safety gear, she thoroughly and safely empties the septic tank of a house, easing its burden. “I take immense pride in the work I do,” she tells South First.


What does World Toilet Day mean to you?

“It’s a moment of celebration for people like me who are involved in the sanitation line. It’s not just about the machinery and the work we do; it’s an opportunity to break the taboos surrounding our field,” she declares.

“But to be honest, I didn’t fully grasp the importance of my work until about five years into the job,” she candidly admits.

Also Read: Telangana government extends deadline for the regularisation of notarised lands; hikes wages of sanitation workers

Reflections & repercussions

At the age of 18, Divya was married. Her husband’s battle with alcohol addiction led her to join the desludging business, a profession he was already engaged in. 

“To support the family, I had to find employment. Since my husband was already in this line of work, I decided to step in and help,” she explains.

By the age of 21, she had purchased her own lorry, retro-fitted with a hollow tank and hose. 

“Initially, I viewed it as just a job, a means of earning a living. However, soon, I realised there was more to what I do. I understood the importance of my role,” she reflects.

For Divya, World Toilet Day is a moment of celebration for people like her who are involved in the sanitation line. (Supplied)

For Divya, World Toilet Day is a moment of celebration for people like her who are involved in the sanitation line. (Supplied)

Picture the repercussions of leaving a house’s septic tank uncleaned. “I witnessed people suffering when their tanks weren’t cleaned. The toilets would overflow, rendering them unusable. The situation is exacerbated, especially during the monsoons. That’s when I came to the realisation that my job isn’t just a source of income; it’s a vital service,” she shares.

Since then, Divya has grown more diligent in her work, gaining a heightened awareness of its intricacies and responsibilities.

“I try to respond within a few minutes when I receive a call from a customer. I don’t keep them waiting. Once in the field, I execute the job swiftly and neatly, ensuring there are no delays,” she shares.

Perhaps it is her diligence and work ethic that has earned Divya a sterling reputation among her customers, lorry owners, and workmen alike.

Also Read: Coimbatore contractual sanitation workers protest as pay-raise pending for 5 years

A shifting landscape

When asked if she always received this level of respect, she laughs. “Back in the earlier days, being part of the sanitation business meant facing considerable social discrimination. We were often looked down upon and considered ‘unclean’. As a woman in this field, it felt like a double challenge, and some customers could be demeaning,” she recalls.

 

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However, Divya notes a positive shift. “Over the last 10 years, I’ve observed a slow yet steady change. There’s now a growing awareness, and that’s a welcome transformation.”

Now, people address her as ‘Lorry owner Divya’ with a lot of respect.

“Customers insist that I handle the tank cleaning because they value the way I approach the job,” she shares.

Despite her dedication, Divya remains firm in refusing to endorse unsafe cleaning practices. 

“There have been instances where customers requested us to manually enter the tank and clean it. However, I refuse to do it,” she asserts.

Also Read: Davanagere village offers same ‘sweeper’ jobs to kin of 2 sanitation workers who died cleaning drains

For the people 

Divya operates in various neighbourhoods in Trichy, primarily focusing on areas such as KK Nagar, and LIC Colony, and extending to Chathiram. As a Desludging Operator (DSO), she handles water disposal from hotels and hostels every morning, earning approximately ₹800 per load.

“In addition, we promptly respond to customer calls and complete a maximum of three loads in the morning. We desludge 10-15 houses monthly. I have a driver for the lorry, and he takes care of getting us to the location while I manage the hose, coupling, and valve during the process. I am always mindful of occupational safety – I make certain that neither I nor my team are in harm’s way. Therefore, the site is thoroughly inspected before any work begins,” she explains.

As part of her daily routine, Divya removes sewage and transports it to designated stations in the city for further treatment.

“People often aren’t aware of the full sanitation process. It’s a lengthy cycle aimed at keeping cities clean and people healthy. I’m glad I’m contributing my part to this chain,” she shares.

Wearing a weight on well-being

Divya finds a deep sense of satisfaction in her work. “Although we collect and clean wastewater, it gives me a sense of contentment,” she says. But it doesn’t come without its challenges. The demanding nature of her job becomes particularly pronounced during the rainy season, taking a toll on her physical well-being.

Navigating through narrow lanes with weighty hoses proves to be a challenging feat. The added complication of rain further exacerbates the difficulties, impacting both her health and overall comfort.

As a strong advocate for gender equality, Divya encourages more women to break free from traditional constraints and pursue their passions. (Supplied)

As a strong advocate for gender equality, Divya encourages more women to break free from traditional constraints and pursue their passions. (Supplied)

“Wearing raincoats, meant to shield against the downpour, paradoxically restricts movement,” she adds.

Divya explains that sometimes, despite their efforts to protect themselves, they end up getting thoroughly drenched. In instances of particularly heavy rainfall, the team may find themselves in a position where they have to temporarily halt their operations, waiting for the rain to subside before continuing their work.

“When I feel tired, a quick nap does wonders. I wake up feeling refreshed and ready for the next task,” she says.

Also Read: More than 25 percent of government schools in South India lack basic toilet facilities

Legacy of respect

While her accomplishments are hers to own, Divya humbly acknowledges the crucial role played by her support system — her parents, in-laws, and a transformed husband.

Dedicated to ensuring the next generation appreciates the essential role of sanitation workers in society, Divya actively engages in conversations with her school-going children.

“My in-laws and parents are sanitation workers too. My children, in 8th and 6th grade, observe our work and understand its significance. They’ve never looked down upon it,” she shares. 

“This has been our legacy. While there are multiple layers to it, I emphasise to them that there’s nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about. It is this job that has earned me the gowravam (respect) in society today. I want to ensure everyone in the job is treated as equals,” she says.

“This job is the foundation for the food on our plates, the roof over our heads, and their education. My children and those in my family address all the sanitation workers and conservancy workers as amma, anna, thatha, or paati. It’s a demonstration of the respect and empathy everyone should have for their fellow human beings,” she shares with pride.

Also Read: Bengaluru civic workers to go on strike from 1 July

Advocate for equality

As a strong advocate for gender equality, Divya encourages more women to break free from traditional constraints and pursue their passions.

“In many houses, even today, women are restricted from stepping outside. The husband’s insistence that women should only run the house is prevalent. But women should come out, do what they love or are passionate about, and make a name for themselves. They should become street smart,” Divya asserts.

In her advice to working women, Divya advocates for mutual respect and support within marriages.

“Earning women too shouldn’t demean their husbands if their salaries are lesser. It’s about being equals and supporting each other,” she shares.

She believes that women have the potential to excel in various fields, including unconventional ones like the sanitation business. “However, women should make these choices willingly, driven by love and interest rather than external pressure,” she says.

Pengal velila vandhu, gowravama, getha irukanum (Women should come out and live proudly and with respect),” she passionately shares.

Also Read: Meet Manimaran, a master chef who broke free from bonded labour

Alter-ego in aromas

Beyond being “septic tank lorry owner Divya”, I ask what defines her when she steps out of the driver’s seat. “Who am I?” she muses. “Well, if you follow the scent of my kitchen, you’ll find the answers in the spices of my nattu kozhi rasam, meen kuzhambu and mutton kuzhambu!” she exclaims.

Enakku samayal romba pudikanum. Nalla samaikanum, elarukum kudukanum, nammalum nalla sapadanum. (I love cooking. Should cook well, share it with everyone, and should eat well),” she shares with a joyful laughter.

While the hum of the septic tank machinery has taken centre stage in her life, Divya has certain plans set.

“Owning a truck is one thing, but repairing it is difficult. The parts have to be usually outsourced, and it becomes expensive,” Divya shares.

As the city rapidly embraces underground drainage (UGD) in phases, she’s strategically peering into the future, contemplating sustainable long-term ventures. “So, here’s the plan,” she declares, “I aim to establish a spare parts shop for my business and will execute it soon!”

“Stigma persists in sanitation work, but this interview wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t contribute positively to society. People should realise that. I truly love what I do. Idhu yen thozhil (This is my business),” she signs off.