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Desperation made an Odisha woman turn to sanitation work. Now it’s her life’s mission

Salila Jena began her journey with phase 2 of the Swachh Bharat Mission as a waste segregator. Now she works with the municipality to treat sewage.

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New Delhi: Decked up in a peacock blue saree and a stack of bangles on each wrist, Odisha resident Salila Jena walked across a stage in Delhi’s Vigyan Bhawan towards President Droupadi Murmu. She was one of women changemakers across the country who were felicitated by the President Saturday.

Salila was recognised for her consistent efforts in faecal sludge and septage management (FSSM) in her village, Akarapada in Jajpur district, Odisha. She has also become a pioneer of inclusivity by promoting the involvement of women in community-managed sanitation.

“Our district has a lot of rivers. During heavy rain, water can flood the areas or increase moisture. This makes waste disposal difficult and that is why intervention is needed,” Salila told ThePrint with the help of a translator.

43-year-old Salila used her oratory skills to generate awareness about safe sanitation practices, assess household waste management practices, and oversee the construction of toilets among other things within her community.

Organised by the Ministry of Jal Shakti, Swachh Sujal Shakti Samman was aimed at celebrating women’s leadership at the grassroots level. The ceremony also kicked off the week of International women’s day, 8 March.

The three categories were — Jal Jeevan Mission, National Water Mission and Swachh Bharat Mission – Grameen (SBM-G). Salila was felicitated under the latter. The SBM-G initiative aims to achieve open-defecation-free (ODF) status and the creation of solid and liquid waste management services in rural areas. FSSM is a key component.

56 women representatives, sarpanches, swacchagrahis, jal vahini, water warriors were honoured. The President awarded 18 of them, the rest received their awards from Union jal shakti minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat.

Also Read: Indian scientists find Covid gene in wastewater — a breakthrough in tracking virus outbreak

Why did she choose this path? 

10 years ago, an unemployed Salila found herself in a position where she had to support her entire family. Her husband had gone to Hyderabad in search of a job as a waiter but was having difficulty finding one.

Salila felt like the ground slipped from under her feet. Her parents-in-law and her two children, a son in class 7 and a daughter in class 6 were depending on her and their savings were dwindling fast.

“I joined Jay Jagannath Seva Samiti, a self-help group, to earn a livelihood. Though my husband eventually got a job, I continued working with the group,” Salila said proudly.

She recalled how her 12-member SHG was not aware of the first phase of the Swachh Bharat Mission when it was launched in 2014 up until toilets were built in their village.

“Later, when phase 2 of the mission started [in 2020], we took part in training programmes and joined the efforts. Initially, we would have the task of segregating non-biodegradable waste like plastic from other materials in the garbage. We would sell the plastic that we collected. The money from that was our earnings,” she explained.

Also Read: A Bengaluru group is knee-deep in wastewater—looking for secrets on future diseases

No job is small

The village had 40-50 septic tanks but the sewage was being disposed of into water bodies which necessitated FSSM.

A big faecal sludge treatment plant was set up in an urban region of the district. As a part of an urban-rural convergence, the authorities were to use the treatment plant to provide treatment services (i.e collection, transport and treatment of faecal sludge from septic tanks) to neighbouring rural areas.

“My role, like other SHG women, was to convince those with the septic tanks that once it got filled up, it needed to be emptied. Once they agreed to it, I would communicate with the municipality and they would send a cesspool vehicle to collect the sewage for treatment in the plant,” she said.

Salila and other women involved in FSSM would earn a sum of money every time they sent a referral.

Salila is a class X graduate in a small village where women are barely educated. She has always had the support of both her family and society. There was no taboo around her working and the nature of her vocation.

“My husband would say no job is small. If someone asked him why his wife involved herself in kachra-vachra, he would respond by narrating his own experiences as a waiter and how even that work required learning very unique techniques. He would go by this mantra that if the village is clean, the family would also be clean and everyone will benefit,” Salila said.

This is the last of a three-part series profiling three rural women who were awarded by the President for their contribution to the water sector.

(Edited by Theres Sudeep)


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