Women scavengers make new beginning, join mainstream


New Delhi : For Usha Chaumar, a former woman scavenger who now lives a life of respect and sells home-made pickles for a living rather than carry human excreta, the change she is happiest about in her life is that people now offer her water in the same glass as they drink from – a sign that she is accepted in the society.

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“I couldn’t imagine that people would invite me to their homes, and what’s more, offer me water in a glass that they use themselves!” said a confident looking Chaumar, dressed in a blue sari, at a press meet in the capital Tuesday.

Thanks to an initiative by Sulabh International, an Indian social service organization working on issues of environmental sanitation and social reforms, 36 women scavengers like Chaumar have been rehabilitated.

Wearing a tiara awarded to her after she was made the president of the Sulabh Sanitation Mission Foundation, Chaumar said that ever since she can remember she has always seen her family members scavenging – a job they desperately wanted to quit, yet had to hang on to for livelihood purposes.

“I have grown up seeing my mother carry night soil on her head, and then I have done the same. I was married off at the age of 10 and after that I continued doing my job along with my mother-in-law. There were times I use to get frustrated – at being called an untouchable, on being barred entry to the temple,” she said, a hint of pain still evident in her voice.

“I really saw no sign of hope until Baba (Bindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh International) came by and offered to take us out of our miserable lives. Since then, life has never been the same again,” Chaumar added.

Pathak, who is well known for his work on environmental sanitation, waste management and human rights, has been widely acclaimed for his endeavour to rehabilitate human scavengers.

The former women scavengers recently visited the United Nations headquarters in New York for a special event, ‘Mission Sanitation- a cultural saga for a cause’, where they not only spoke about their experiences to the country representatives, but also sashayed down the ramp with well known models wearing their creations.

“It was thrilling,” gushed 27-year-old Lakshmi Nanda, another former woman scavenger.

“We walked along with famous models who were wearing saris, lehengas and gowns – all that we had created with the help of Abdul Haldar, a designer,” she said.

The rehabilitated women scavengers have been, over a period of four years, taught how to read and write and have been given vocational training in stitching clothes, making pickles, beauty therapy et al.

“We were trained over a period of three months and during the period paid a stipend of Rs.1,500 so that we could sustain ourselves. After that we started selling our food stuff and clothes,” Nanda recalled.

“Initially people hesitated to buy our things, but slowly things started changing. Now not only do people buy our things, but also invite us to their homes. Our children go to school with all the other kids… it’s a life we have all yearned for,” said an emotional Nanda, who also read out two of her poems.

Pathak now plans to rehabilitate the rest of the 400 human scavengers in Alwar, following the same model.

“The aim is that by 2009 human scavenging will be removed from the face of India. Right now I have centres of the Sulabh International Social Service Organisation in Alwar and Tonk areas of Rajasthan. I plan to set up 10 more such centres across the country soon,” Pathak said.