Dawn of Hope

By Parul Sharma, journalist with The Hindu

Standing in the prayer hall with other women, she sings “Hum Honge Kamyab… (we shall overcome…)” with great gusto and fervour, for Laxmi Nanda knows she is one of those rare persons whose courageous life truly symbolises one of India’s favourite social harmony songs. This 27-year-old woman from Alwar district in Rajasthan has a petite frame but with her indomitable will she has been able to transform her life in a way that is no less than a dream.

With her poise and strong communication and presentation skills, it is rather hard to imagine that till about five years ago, Laxmi was a scavenger in her locality who manually collected human excreta from homes and carried it on her head to dump it in a nearby drain.

For Laxmi and around 50 other women like her at Alwar who had been working as scavengers, life was a humiliating drudgery. “I often thought, is this what I am destined to do all my life? Will there be no end to my misery? We were disgusted with what we were forced to do because of our poverty. There were kuchha toilets in our locality. We had to go from one house to another and collect excreta. We would put mud on it, gather it and put it in a vessel that we carried on our heads. During rains, some of that muck would fall on our heads. After dumping it in a nearby drain, we would wash our vessels. It was a filthy job,” she recounts her past life with utter disgust.

That was when Sulabh International Founder, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, came as a godsend messenger to her. “Sir (that is how they address Dr. Pathak) met us and asked us if we would give up doing this sick work in case he gave us alternative means of employment. We were more than happy and jumped at the offer,” Laxmi reminisces with a smile. That was over five years ago and since then there has been no looking back for her. With the opening of Nai Disha by Sulabh International Social Service Organisation at Alwar, Laxmi and many rural women scavengers like her began a new phase of their lives.

At the centre from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. they are taught how to read and write Hindi and English, do simple arithmetic and learn tables. They are engaged in productive work like making papads, pickles, vermicelli, stitching and embroidery. All the products made by these women at the centre are supplied to residential colonies and hotels in other districts of Rajasthan and Delhi. “When we worked as scavengers, all that we got was Rs. 300-400 per month. But at the centre, we get Rs. 2,000 in a month. Most importantly, it has given us a lot of respect and dignity in the eyes of others and boosted our self-esteem,” says Laxmi with obvious pride.

“We look forward to going to centre every day, even if it means walking daily for over 30 minutes to reach our destination. I learnt stitching at the centre. We get orders from different boutiques. At home, I stitch dresses for my mother-in-law and my daughters and manage to save some money,” she added. For someone who never attended school in her childhood, Laxmi can now read and write and sign her name both in Hindi and English. Her association with Sulabh International has been able to unearth another talent in her: poetry.

Laxmi has penned down beautiful lines in the Hindi language, on her life’s experiences so far with some assistance from her very supportive husband, Kundan.

Titled ‘Patan se Uthaan ki Taraf’, the poem traces her journey from the time she worked as a scavenger since she was 19 years old to her dignified existence today when life is full of hope and sanguinity for her. Today, Laxmi helps her husband in supporting her family and is keen that her three children – Priya, Vasu and Sneha – receive the best possible education.

Thanks to Sulabh Movement, Laxmi and many erstwhile women scavengers like her participated in a high-profile function in Delhi and Patna that was attended by a number of national and international dignitaries and political leaders. After getting back home in the evening, she practises all that she learnt at the centre with her eldest daughter who helps her with her English and Hindi spelling and pronunciation.

“Our visit to New York is already the talk of town at Alwar. We have observed a perceptible difference in the attitudes of people. Those people at whose houses we worked earlier and who treated us as untouchables, now sit beside us, chat and have tea with us. They treat us with dignity now and are awed with this unexpected transformation in our lives,” says Laxmi.

Laxmi wishes her good luck to continue, wants to earn laurels for her organisation and get more scavengers in her locality under the aegis of Nai Disha so that they too can lead an improved and empowered life like her. “I was one among the first batch of the centre. It is now my responsibility to get more women like us to the centre so that they also can develop their potential to the fullest and fulfil their ambitions.”

For Laxmi and other princesses of Alwar, even the sky is not the limit, judging from the confident way they talk about their future.