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Amongst the litany of violences that remain an essential part of the caste dynamic of India, the practice of manual scavenging is perhaps one of the most reprehensible. A gendered discrimination at that. On a trip to a village in Uttar Pradesh, Ragini Bhuyan encounters an intervention that stands out as a true example of innovation in social change.

Neki, a Hindi word deriving from nek, translates to 'goodness'. It is an apt name for a detergent brand sold by rehabilitated manual scavengers in the village of Nekpur, two hours drive from the country's capital. The journey to Nekpur takes me past the urban sprawl of Ghaziabad – Bajrang Dal banners, animal feed ads on buses, innumerable ads for basmati rice and besan. But when I get to Nekpur I am surprised. It comes as a shock that manual scavenging could exist in a village that appears at first glance to be a veritable rural idyll, served by pucca lanes, concrete houses, four schools, and hedged in by sugarcane fields. Yet, until a year ago, many houses in this village of roughly 5,000 had only dry toilets. Ballo Devi, a cheerful, chatty 70-year old woman, tells me that generations of her family have been cleaning dry latrines. As I sit chatting with her at the Nai Vikas vocational training centre, student volunteers from Sri Ram College of Commerce's Enactus team, a group that focuses on social entrepreneurship, tell me that her daughter and granddaughter are being rehabilitated under Project Azmat, a programme that transpired two years ago, when they read about the practice in an article by the Bezwada Wilson-led Safai Karmachari Association. When they contacted the SKA, they were directed to this village. These women belong to the Balmiki caste.

"Earlier villagers wouldn't let us enter their houses. They would pour water for us to drink from as far as they could. They would hand us the rotis gingerly from afar even though we kept their toilets clean. But now they don't hesitate from inviting us inside their houses and asking us to sit on their khaats," Ballo Devi tells me. "When we first came to Nekpur, the village elders denied that the practice even existed here. But now they come to the centre to buy detergent," Shreyani Sharma, a third year student who is also the project head, informs me. The rapport with the students is evident from the moment we enter. The 15 women waiting to receive us greet us with affectionate hugs, relishing the sweets the students have got for them ("the sweets are because we passed our first-year exams", Aanavi Dewan, a second-year student, informs me).

These 20 women are the primary breadwinners of their families. Manual scavenging, as a deeply apologetic Jairam Ramesh acknowledged at a seminar organized by the British government sponsored Poorest Areas Civil Society programme last year, is a gendered practice, overwhelmingly carried out by women. At the same conference, Bezwada Wilson also busted the myth that only Hindus practice it. Ramesh acknowledged that despite a 1993 law that expressly bans manual scavenging, not a single arrest had been made under the law. Ramesh mentioned that the 2011 census recorded the presence of almost 27 lakh dry latrines – 60% in urban areas, 40% in rural areas.

The battle is fought on two fronts – economic rehabilitation as well as social acceptability by building their confidence, giving them exposure etc.  — Bindeswar Pathak


"When we first came here two years ago, these women would hide their faces and tell us to get lost. Apparently many NGOs had come earlier and made empty promises. Also, they were worried about losing their livelihood," Sharma tells me. An entire year went simply in community mobilization.

"Villagers refused to take us seriously until we actually started building toilets," she says. 128 toilets were built with financial and material support from Sulabh International, including toilets for the families of the scavengers. "Sulabh pays the rent for the training centre, the salaries of the two permanent staff as well as a monthly stipend of Rs 2,000 for these women until this project becomes self-sustaining. Additionally, the women also earn anything between Rs 500-2,000 per head per month, depending on the quantum of detergent produced," she says.

The second leg of the rehabilitation process involved finding an alternative means of livelihood. "We researched as to what products and services had demand in the surrounding markets. It had to be labour intensive as we had to rehabilitate 20 women. It also had to be something relatively simple since these women were illiterate," Dewan explains. Detergent manufacture fit the bill. "Our survey showed us that there were a lot of dhobi ghats in Ghaziabad," she says. They identified local suppliers for the raw material – salt, slurry, silica, soda ash. They approached the PHD Chamber of Commerce's Rural Development Foundation, which put them in touch with Sunil Jain, owner of Chemisynth. Jain's company manufactures detergent for Indian and International brands, and he helped them understand the manufacturing process. His factory in Gurgaon tests the samples manufactured here.

"The key thing about making detergent is that you have to get the measurements right. So we had to educate the women," Dewan explains. The small verandah of the two-room training institute, used as a production floor for mixing, sieving and packaging the detergent, also doubles up as a classroom. The village gets electricity only for 3 hours at night, and sometimes, there is no electricity for an entire week. So they are currently in talks with solar panel manufacturers to donate a panel as part of their CSR programmes.

I ask Ballo Devi what is the difference in their income post-rehabilitation. "Villagers never paid us in cash earlier. We would be given foodgrains, rotis, occasionally clothes. Only if there was a wedding would they spare us Rs 50 or 100," she explains. It is ironic that while we are nitpicking over the Planning Commission's figure of Rs 32 as the BPL line, the reality of those living outside the cash economy exists a mere two hours away from the country's capital. 18-year old Preeti Devi recalls that this lack of cash meant she had to drop out of school. She simply had no money to pay the fees. It also didn't help that she was forced to sit at distance from other students and not allowed to work the water pump. "I could only drink water in school if I could persuade someone to work the hand pump. Even then I would be instructed to not touch the pump, drink from as far as I could," she says.

Ballo Devi's granddaughter, a shy 15-year old, adds that she did go to school till the 3rd standard, but stopped because she was discriminated against. "The other students would keep a distance from me. Teachers also wouldn't pay attention," she says. Her friend, Soni Devi, studied till class 4 but stopped because she had to help her mother at scavenging.

Anybody who has seen Stalin K's searing documentary, India Untouched, will understand that untouchability has mutated and persists in modern India, from the plight of leather tanners in Punjab to the Indian railways that activists accuse of being the biggest employers of manual scavengers. Yet, the experience of Nekpur shows us that a committed effort can bring about a marked shift in people's attitudes. Bindeswar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International offered some insights into why a simple toilet building and vocational training programme has been able to achieve so much. "Dr. Ambedkar once said that slavery in the US might have been remedied by a law but in India, no law, but only social acceptability can bring about a change. Gandhi was the first to really draw nation-wide attention to this issue. In 1934 in Orissa, he remarked that people were ready to face the bullets of the British, but not eat with untouchables. He realized that till they cleaned night soil, nobody would want to eat with them. EM Forster rightly said that no God is required to liberate manual scavengers, only a flush toilet," Pathak explains. Sulabh has arranged for these women to travel to Delhi, meet important government representatives and speak confidently on stage. "The battle is fought on two fronts – economic rehabilitation as well as social acceptability by building their confidence, giving them exposure, etc," he points out.

Bhasha Singh, author of Adrishya Bharat, a book on manual scavenging, feels that while individual philanthropic efforts are commendable, they have their limitations. "The problem with NGO efforts is that they often do not approach the government. This allows the government to remain apathetic. How many women can be rehabilitated through private efforts? 50? 100? In the last 2 years alone, the government has allocated Rs 100 crore for this issue, not a penny of which has been spent. There is a scheme, SRMS, under which the government is supposed to provide loans up to Rs 5 lakh to rehabilitate scavengers. When I went to a village near Meerut some time ago, the women informed me that the government officials were not willing to lend them more than Rs 35,000 under the scheme, insisting that they confine themselves to occupations like pig rearing. This exposes the casteist mentality of government officials – even in the name of rehabilitation, they direct scavengers towards activities seen as unclean and menial," Singh argues.

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill, 2012, meant to replace the toothless 1993 act, has recently been passed, after it had been pending for more than a year, largely due to the resistance of Indian Railways to being held accountable for perpetuating this practice. In January this year, an exasperated Supreme Court directed the government to stop dragging its feet over the bill, and pass it through ordinance, if necessary. In July, three Balmiki men employed by the IGNCA died from gas poisoning after they were asked to enter and unclog a sewer. Singh advocates a rights-based, activist approach, whereby manual scavengers demand that the government give them their due, be it better employment or greater financial assistance. Meanwhile, the good work done by the students must lead the way for more efforts in this direction.

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