Rajasthan-based Usha Chaumar, 42, has braved a concoction of social evils to become the inspiration that she is today.
Born and brought up in Deegh, a village near Bharatpur in Rajasthan, Usha belongs to a clan that the society deems as the “untouchables.” For the Dalit communities in these regions, years of social malpractice decide the profession that these people would engage in, even before their birth.
At the age of seven, she was instructed to follow her mother into people’s houses, manually cleaning dry latrines and removing human filth without any precaution. Recounting that she didn’t have much of a say in the whole arrangement, Usha says,
“I followed my mother into this field of work. In our community it is important for us to learn this work as early as possible, because even after marriage, we are doomed to this same fate of manual scavenging.”
Usha was married off at the age of 10, and by the time she was 14, she had to move her base to Alwar, where her in-laws now resided. But the shift did not change her position in the society. “People used to hate us; they would consider us as the untouchables of the society,” she recalls.
Manual Scavenging – a plight of class and caste
The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, terms manual scavenging as a non-bailable offence. Under this law, offenders could be imprisoned up to five years. Yet, the inhuman practice, as old as the caste and class division itself, goes on unabated in various parts of the country.
In fact, this practice has claimed the lives of many , with 2019 recording the maximum number of deaths from manual scavenging.
“When I worked as a manual scavenger, I was perpetually sick, I would continuously suffer from one or the other health issues. Often the work would make me feel dizzy, cause stomach aches, nausea, and headache,” says Usha. Even the doctors she consulted gave her the same advice, attributing her symptoms to the hazards of her profession.
Besides facing health hazards, Usha and the other women in her community had to face the scorn of the villagers too. “Such was the hatred and the discrimination, that they wouldn’t even call us by our names but by offensive terms,” she recollects.
Light at the end of the tunnel
In 2002, Usha had a chance encounter with Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of the Sulabh International Social Service Organisation (SISSO). A pioneer in the field of sanitation and crusader for abolition of manual scavenging , he founded the NGO in 1970, to support the manual scavenger community fighting deep-rooted discrimination.
It was during one of his visits to Alwar that Dr Pathak’s path crossed with the community of manual scavengers in the region. Recalling that first encounter, Usha tells us,
“Until I met Dr Pathak, I didn’t even realise that an alternate line of work was possible for us. My family had been working as manual scavengers for ages, and I thought this was the natural progression for me.”
Although there was an initial hesitation when women in and around Alwar were offered an option for a different lifestyle, Usha took a leap of faith with Dr Pathak and joined Nai Disha, a training institute, under the guidance of Dr Suman Chahar, the Senior Vice President of SISSO.
Soon, many women followed in Usha’s footsteps, giving up the life of manual scavenging to earn dignity and a respectful job in the society. Around 115 women are involved with Nai Disha today, most of them formerly employed as manual workers.
From social ostracization to economic stability
As a manual scavenger, Usha earned around Rs 230/month, barely making enough to meet the living expenses for herself and her family. Also, the nature of her work was as such that she couldn’t even afford to fall sick for a day. “If I didn’t show up at work for even one day, people would come knocking at our doors. They were worried that their children would fall sick,” she says.
However, since the inception of Nai Disha in 2003, Usha and many other women traded the life they were born into for an economically sustainable and dignified existence. At the training institute, they would engage in various entrepreneurial endeavours. From making condiments like papad, achar (pickle), and jams, to mastering the craft of tailoring, stitching, and embroidery, these women found a respite from the ostracization imposed on them.
But more importantly, what this alternate channel of employment did was put an end to untouchability.
“Gandhiji had urged people to rise above untouchability and discrimination,” says Usha, who is now the President of SISSO. Over time, she has also made headways with her social work, traveling across the length and breadth of the world. She has attended a UN event as part of their Mission Sanitation programme, and has met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on numerous occasions.
Praising Dr.Pathak and PM Modi for furthering Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of sanitation and cleanliness, she adds, “If the Prime Minister of our nation is ready to pick up a broom and rid the country of all the filth, I am more than willing to follow his suit.”
(Edited by Athira Nair)