Private De-sludging Markets: Does a One-Size Approach Fit All?

Gayathri Pattnam, Rajesh Ramamoorthy, Prithivi Mohan | 2022


“I need to maintain a 4-star rating on Google,” Irfan* remarked. “Only then I will get calls!” Irfan runs a de-sludging business in Chennai, one of India’s metropolitan cities and Tamil Nadu’s capital. Across Tamil Nadu, private markets have evolved in response to the need for emptying services, filling a critical lacuna in municipal service provision. Irfan started as a casual laborer, eventually accumulated enough savings to purchase a vacuum truck and now manages a fleet of 10 trucks. While this is unusual in the larger context of Tamil Nadu, such businesses are common in metropolitan areas (28 cities with a population over one lakh). Here, de-sludging operators have an extensive clientele, professionalized business models, and importantly, access to formal finance which allows for rapid business expansion. Service calls from households are accorded a lower priority, while bulk generators are the targeted customers. Accordingly, marketing strategies have moved from dropping business cards to also enlisting on search engines. Moreover, the nature of jobs has diversified to also include blockage removal from sewerage and drainage systems. In these locations, the disposal facilities have been designed for a higher number of trucks. For example, Chennai has three disposal points, with each receiving an average of 100 trucks per day.
In Vickramasingapuram, a municipality in Tamil Nadu, Durai* runs a de-sludging business with one truck and two workers. He works as a contractual conservancy worker as revenues from the business are insufficient. Operators in this region provide services across towns, travel longer distances and station themselves near highways to access other markets. The reported de-sludging rates are also much higher than Chennai or Trichy. The FSTPs in these areas (56 FSTPs catering to 120 towns) have lower capacities, catering to roughly 4 to 8 trucks a day. Conversations with de-sludging operators were held at 10 locations across the state from September 2021 to January 2022. This covers two major cities, three medium and five small towns.
These stark differences in operator practices and business models have implications on the types of engagement
required to strengthen de-sludging service provision in the state. Urban local bodies (ULB) of larger towns and cities have adopted a regulatory approach. Some cities issue desludging licenses upon payment of a fee and/or collect tipping fees for usage of disposal facilities. Some towns on Chennai’s peripheries have high demand for de-sludging: ULBs have awarded exclusive rights to one or two private operators through bidding and disallow other players from providing services.
In smaller towns, operators engage in this work as a form of livelihood. Lower demand, challenges in accessing formal credit facilities, and lack of linkages with sanitation or entrepreneurial schemes mean that operators rely on supplementary jobs to make ends meet. There is a clear need for a differentiated approach by state and non-state actors at regional levels to ensure that their livelihoods are protected. For larger cities, the focus can remain on regulation and mitigating threats from cities becoming fully sewered by enabling diversification of services.