Liberating the “Untouchables”
By Jose kalathil
Among them, according to government, 11,000 are engaged in the centuries-old practice of physically removing human excrement from ‘dry’ toilets. They are called ‘manual scavengers’ and their job is described as the “worst job in the world,” despite it being illegal since 1993. Eighty-six per cent of them belong to the Uttar Pradesh state. (But another survey claimed their number as 180,000.)
Being the lowest among the castes, Seema Athwal’s family was one among them, but had not to do this job as her father worked as a sweeper. Like other girls in the village of Rajasthan state, she grazed cattle instead of going to school. At the age of 15, in 1995, after marriage, she moved to Alwar, where her mother-in-law worked as a ‘scavenger.’ For a living, Seema also joined the family tradition and earned Rs 500 (US$8) per month at the rate of Rs 20 (30 cents) to Rs 25 (32 cents) from each family. She even worked on rainy days to avoid her salary being cut. “I would sometimes get drenched with the shit. After 8-10 hours of ‘work’, I would go home and cook,” she said.
But her life changed for the better in 2006, after 11 years, when she met Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International Social Service (SISS) in Alwar. A high caste Brahmin, he started SISS in 1970 to liberate the “untouchables.” He says, “At home, I had once playfully touched an ‘untouchable’ woman. So, my grandfather gave me a ‘purifying mixture’ of the Ganga water, cow dung and sand to swallow. Later, in a scavengers’ colony, I witnessed a newly-wed being forced to clean toilets. These two incidents changed my life.”
Today, Seema is a liberated woman. She said, “Pathak persuaded 26 of us to join Nai Disha (New Direction), a wing of SISS founded in 2003. It helps us to be self-reliant by learning food processing, cutting and tailoring, bag making, beauty care, toy making, etc. Apart from the monthly stipend of Rs 3,000 (US$50), I earn by stitching bags at home.”
A mother of four, she now operates a bank account and owns a refrigerator and a TV. She has also travelled to New York, dined with dignitaries and walked the ramp at the United Nations headquarters, in 2008.
On the request of the National Scheduled Tribes Finance and Development Corporation and the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Nai Disha’s facilities were extended to Tonk, 200 kilometres from Alwar, in 2012, where 150 women learn various skills. Now, both Alwar and Tonk are scavenger-free.
Sushil Kumar Jain said, “I have ordered 16,000 toy elephants and Santa Clauses for export to the US and Europe from them for Christmas.”
Ranjit Singh, 40, in whose house Seema once worked, said, “We don’t discriminate her now. Rather, we consider her as a family member. We even attend each other’s social functions.” His wife Rajeshwari added, “My son and her children are friends.”
Pathak even helped these “untouchables” enter temples. Devendra Sharma, the priest at the local Lord Jagannath temple, said, “They are free to perform all rituals.”
Pathak added, “I want to fulfill Mahatma Gandhi’s dream of liberating “untouchables. If each liberated woman teaches her family members the skills that she learned, all will become self-reliant.”
Started with seven volunteers, SISS now has 50,000 employees. It also works for the welfare of widows in Vrindavan, the birth place of Lord Krishna. They come from all over the country to spend rest of their life singing and praying. SISS has built 8,000 public toilets in 26 states and four Union Territories, which are used by over 15 million people daily. These pay-and-use toilets are maintained by “untouchables” themselves. Sulabh has also installed two-pit toilets, invented by its research team in 130 million households. It needs only two litres of water.
Pathak has been honoured with several awards that include International Saint Francis Prize for the Environment ‘Canticle of all Creatures’ and Stockholm Water Prize.