From working as manual scavenger to becoming the president of Sulabh International

Before 2003, I used to work as manual scavenger. I used to go to houses clean and carry night soil. That was my life.  I could not send my children to a school like the people of a higher caste. I wanted to send my children to school too but there were hardly any opportunities for people like us. We were born as untouchables and was condemned to live like untouchables.

I was trained to be untouchable from my childhood. Since I was just seven-years-old, I used to accompany my mother to work and cleaned dry latrines. My mother used to tell me, ‘once you get married you have to do the same work. So, she used to take me with her to work.’

I used to see how she (my mother) cleaned night soil, how she collected it in the metal tray and the manner which she dumped. It was dirty work and absolutely revolting.

Like the children of higher castes. I wanted to go to school but my mother used to tell me what the point of studying is – no matter what when I grow up and marry, I have no choice but to work as a manual scavenger.

I briefly went to a school but faced severe stigma and discrimination. Because of my family’s occupation, I was labelled as an untouchable. So, no child would mingle or sit next to me. They would keep a distance from me but frequently bullied me. My complaints felt in deaf ears. So, I stopped going to school. And my mother used to say that she needed me for her work.

I was married-off along with my older sister when I was just ten-years-old. We were married in different families. I came here to Alwar to my husband’s house. As predicted by my mother, I realised that I had to clean dry latrine like my mother to support the family – I simply had no other choice.

In Rajasthan, we have the custom of covering our faces. Now you don’t see me do it. But before Sulabh intervened in our lives, we used to cover our faces and keep them covered when we went out. One day while returning from work after dumping the night soil, we met Dr Bindeshwar Pathak in a place called ‘maila chowk’ (literally translated as filth square).

Meeting Dr Bindeshwar Pathak

Dr Pathak walked towards us and requested us to spare a moment to listen to him. He was a stranger, so we didn’t want to listen to him at the first instance, but he persisted.

So, we gathered around him to see what he had to say. He asked us ‘why we do this work (work as a manual scavenger)?’ We thought he was joking with us because no one had ever asked us about our work.

I said, ‘Sir, this our work. This is all we know. This has been part of our lives for a long time for generations. All women do this work’

He asked us to lift our veils so that he could recognise us and identify us later. I was scared because we were not allowed to lift the veil in front of anyone except our husbands – and certainly not in front of any man.

We politely asked me to accompany us to our mohalla (colony), where we lived. Once we got back, he enquired about our work and how much we earned.

Dr Pathak was shocked to know that we just earned 200 or 300 rupees per month. He was curious to know how we supported our families which such little money.

We explained to him that we were fed with left-over food by the families in whose homes we worked. They also gave us their used clothes, and once a year they gave us a new set of clothes. That is how we were survived.

Dr Pathak explained to us that there was no need for us to stick to a profession just because we were born into a certain circumstance. Our job was full of the health hazard, he explained, and it was important for us to break the chain of inheriting an occupation based on our caste. He told us about the importance of learning alternate livelihood skills, about educating our children, about making our own choices in life based on our self-dignity. He said only we can help ourselves to get rid of the stigma of being called an untouchable, and he was here to assist us to achieve that.

He further said he would support us financially to help make the transition from being a manual scavenger to learning a new skill that could help us earn money and live with dignity. We wanted it, but we still didn’t believe him. So, we asked him to talk to our family members and the elders.

He told everyone that he wants us to economically and socially empower us and help us take up professions that could help us earn more and live with dignity. We told him that no one wants to do this disgusting dirty work. He then asked us to come to Delhi.

My mother-in-law was totally against the idea of suddenly quitting a work that we as a community have been doing for generations but also it was a question of family’s survival. I was bringing in some money and food. However, my husband supported the ideas and asked me to give it a go. He said if nothing comes out of it, at least, I will be able to visit Delhi free of cost!

But I was worried about the work I would be leaving behind. The homes that we cleaned have been distributed amongst us. We can clean toilets of those homes that were assigned to us and not any house we want. In our culture, parents do not see how good the family is where we work. They see how big the house is that we will be cleaning. The bigger the house, the more money is paid. So, we all aspire to work in bigger homes. Small houses mean less pay and more work.

The first time I went to Delhi I got to sit in a car with a lot of respect – I had never travelled anywhere in an air-conditioned car with a music player in it. It was a very nice and comfortable journey and I still remember how excited we on upon reaching Delhi.

We reached Sulabh campus in Delhi, we were given a grand welcome. They garlanded us and tears rolled down my eyes- I never experience such respect in my life. For the first time in our lives, we were treated as humans at par with others and not slaves.

The founder of Sulabh International, Dr Bindeshwar Pathak is a Brahmin (the highest caste in the Hindu social order) and we are Harijans (the lowest in the caste order).  And we couldn’t understand how we would get along with him. But Dr Pathak told us in clear terms that in Sulabh all human beings are treated as equal. Everyone lives and works together in Sulabh. We felt inspired.

During our visit to Delhi, Dr Pathak took us to a five-star hotel in Delhi. We felt great Dr Pathak wanted to demonstrate that we all have the right to access the best things life. Our birth and caste do not determine anything in life. We need to build our own resilience and choose the path of empowerment both financially and socially. We must endeavour to improve our lives and ensure a better life for our children.

Returning Home

Dr Pathak gave all of us 200 rupees to buy sweets and gifts for our children and 100 rupees for us. I recall, after being treated with so much love and dignity, I really didn’t want to go back and work as a manual scavenger.

I finally gave up my job. I was told by my employers that it was a mistake and we were being deceived, but I nonetheless decided to go ahead. We were looked down upon so much that they called me different names like bhangi, jamadar. They never used my real name.

Now they call me Usha, Ushaji, or Madamji. But before Sulabh it was not like that. They used to be very rude and used bad words to address us or called us names. I didn’t like it at all. I felt bad.

The Impact of Vocational Training Centres

The vocational and training centre opened for us by Dr Pathak is known as Nai Disha  meaning one direction. The first thing they taught us was cleanliness and personal hygiene. We were not used to taking shower before work in the morning as I had to go about doing a disgusting job of cleaning toilets – now that we were asked to take bath before starting a new day.

The teachers at the centre were very good. They taught us about personal hygiene like cutting our nails, washing and combing our hair. They were very nice to us and did not treat us differently or discriminated. But we treated them differently initially. We were very brash and rude. We used to pick fights with them. But they taught us the importance of cleanliness and its impact on our health and well-being.

Then they taught us how to read and write. Education is very important and this is something I learnt in Sulabh. Anything in life is incomplete without it.

We gradually learnt how to make poppadum, noodles, weaving clothes and bags and to manage beauty parlours.  Truth be told, social acceptance has been dramatic. People who were even afraid to come near our shadows, were now our customers – they were buying the products made by us. Now we go to their homes to provide beauty parlour services. Before we could not even enter their house.

Now they show me a lot of respect and talk to me nicely. Sometimes I ask them what changed their attitude towards me. They say that they never hated me. They hated the work I did. Cleaning and carrying night soil are disgusting work. So obviously no one wanted to touch or mingle or even talk to us socially.

What Sulabh did under the leadership of Dr Bindeshwar Pathak was to tackle to the problem at its roots. Our job was sustained because there were dry latrines that had to be manually cleaned. Sulabh built the two -pit toilets in homes where we work. So effectively, we became redundant. So, we all joined Nai Disha – Sulabh’s vocational centre to learn new skills.

The Gradual Change in Social Attitude

People who employed me before now call me to weddings and other family functions. There is a big temple here, Jaganath Temple. The priest of the temple there was very rude to us. If we sat even on the steps of the temple he used to shoo us away.

But because of Dr Pathak’s intervention, we can now enter the temple as well.  He explained to the priests that all humans are equal and should be treated equally in the eyes of God too.  We were invited by the same temple priests to his children’s wedding on two occasions.

Affirmative action like the ones that Dr Pathak initiated has deep symbolic meaning. It was upliftment of the entire community not just individuals. Things like skill development and education are important but not everyone can optimise such recourses because talents of individuals vary. But when a community is privileged the equation changes. Others want to become like you. You become the new Brahmins – this was the idea behind Dr Pathak’s intervention. In a society like India, the approach has to be two-fold. One was the availability of toilet technology and second was the an introduce a skill development and economic empowerment programme.  We are the biggest beneficiaries of such programme.

We sat and ate food with people of other communities including Brahmins, priests and also families of our old employers.  We are now accepted as part of the wider society and this has happened in such a short span of time.

There was some resistance but instead of taking a confrontationist attitude, Dr Pathak took the path of persuasion and successfully convinced the priests to allow the women to enter the temple. This was a historic moment.

Becoming the President of Sulabh International

It was Dr Pathak’s dream that the president of Sulabh should be someone who comes from the marginalised section of the society. One day in Alwar he asked the women collectively, who could be the president of Sulabh. Every woman there took my name and I was made the President with a large consensus. Now I am educated so I know the title means, but back then I didn’t know what it meant. Everyone was clapping. But I still didn’t understand what it meant.

When journalists and reporters asked me about it, I didn’t know what to say. Now I attend meetings and run a nationwide campaign against manual cleaning of dry toilets. I speak out against any kind of discrimination in society.

There was some resistance but instead of taking a confrontationist attitude, Dr Pathak took the path of persuasion and successfully convinced the priests to allow the women to enter the temple. This was a historic moment.