Rehabilitation and Alternate Livelihood of Scavenger Women: Success Story of Sulabh’s Initiative


Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, Founder, Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement, visit to Alwar, a town in Rajasthan, some years ago when he saw a group of young women carrying night soil to a dumping ground. When he stopped his car, got down and approached them, they were all stunned. Normally, what conversation could they have with any well dressed person coming towards them, as the very sight repels people lest they should spoil their day with the stink from the excreta-loaded container on their head. To their great astonishment, the question he asked them was : “ Would you like to change your profession ?” Nobody had ever made such a query. Was he a good Samaritan or personification of some holy spirit who wanted to rid them of their demeaning profession? They were all taken aback.

nai-disha-2But seeing the earnestness with which he had approached them, they requested him to visit them in the colony where they lived. Since Dr. Pathak seemed a well-to-do man wanting to change their lot, they talked to their families and neighbours about their lot, and also about their unique meeting with him. It was a sight to behold. Nearly more than 500 women had gathered to listen to Dr. Pathak when he arrived there in the afternoon. They all wanted to know what would make their lives better. And when he asked about the rehabilitation programme for their better livelihood they all agreed with one voice. However, some and many of them asserted, “ Sir, we would not like to touch or use handmade brooms for cleaning dry buckets”. “No, of course you will not. Now you will live with dignity” replied Dr. Pathak. And then he asked if they would come to Delhi and everyone agreed with one voice. In Delhi, when many of them arrived, they were told what they would be required to do at the training centre, which is to be named as “Nai Disha” (a new paradigm).

nai-disha-3Nai Disha is a vocational training centre in the Alwar district of Rajasthan. The centre, which was started at the initiative of Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, Founder, Sulabh Sanitation Movement, on April 2003 is an organization with a difference, and has a distinct vision to change the course of the lives of those who, by virtue of birth alone, were born to bear the burden of shame and ignominy throughout their life as manual scavengers.

With a view to giving a new direction to the crucial issue of rehabilitation of liberated women scavengers through vocational training and making the programme rich in its content Sulabh has set up this center under an innovative model known as Nai Disha, which acts as a model for other organizations engaged in similar tasks. The center has been established with the active cooperation and support of socially enlightened women, belonging to the scavenging community in the vicinity.

The noble idea of starting a vocational centre at Alwar is to take out women scavengers out of their dirty occupation and bring them into the mainstream of society.  That’s how the vocational training centre was rightly named “Nai Disha”.

Nai Disha was conceived with the sole objective of breaking this chain of social injustice and inequality. The turmoil in the mind and the life of this community, as depicted in Mulk Raj Anand’s novel “Untouchable”, is an insight into how the factor of their birth controls, twists and depresses their day to day life. What this organization undertook was definitely a missionary initiative. It is realized that in order to have a major change, a shift in their day-to-day living is required, which will exorcise the painful memories of their yesteryears. In other words, an alternative was needed to their only source of living.

Having worked as manual scavengers for a greater part of their life, today they are learning skills which will take them miles away from this hereditary occupation. At Nai Disha the process of the metamorphosis of scavenger women began. Keeping in mind their interests a training module  developed for the purpose, is divided into various segments such as food processing, cutting & tailoring, embroidery, beauty care and functional literacy. The center is guided by the philosophy that a healthy body is the key to a person’s overall well being. Accordingly, it holds regular medical check-ups. But training, in the absence of an alternative to their only source of livelihood, may not be a practical idea. Keeping in mind the economic aspect, Nai Disha also offers the trainees a monthly stipend.

nai-disha-8The decision regarding selection of courses is taken up by women scavengers themselves. Twenty-eight women have been so far trained in food processing, beauty care, embroidery and cutting and tailoring.  They are paid a monthly stipend of Rs.1800.00 so that they do not revert back to their old profession of scavenging.  In the first two years these women have not only learnt to interact with bank officials and sign on their cheques but also to market the products they produce on profit earning basis. The women who have undergone the training at the centre have acquired self-confidence. The vocational training centre at Alwar is thus, a unique example of women empowerment initiatives.

Based on the experience gained during the training programme and the opinions as expressed by the women scavengers particularly at Nai Disha, Alwar, it is suggested that the duration of the training should be of two to three years so that they get a detailed knowledge, both of the theoretical and practical side, of training and can compete in the open market.  It is felt that the period of one year or even two years in certain cases is not adequate for a fruitful training.

The two-year training should be followed by a one-year period of rehabilitation so that they get sufficient time for their economic empowerment. The trained women can be put in two categories.  In the first category are those with leadership qualities and initiatives who can set up their own enterprise with the help of subsidies and loans available from the Government.  This will enable them to produce quality material and also to make necessary arrangements for their marketing.  In the second category are those trainees who do not have requisite leadership qualities. They can be brought under a cooperative society by providing all the facilities and assistance.

nai-disha-9Transforming the lives of these 28 individuals was not an easy task. Initially, these women were not only least bothered about personal hygiene but their use of language, too, was far from polite, especially during their interpersonal communication. But the concerned professionals and functionaries at the centre were mentally prepared for it. Their patience and perseverance reaped results soon. They have instilled in them a sense of worth, to lead the rest of their life with dignity. Nai Disha has taught them how to carve out a niche for themselves on the unshakable wall of this world and rewrite their destiny.

nai-disha-10The social transformation brought about can be gauged by the incredible fact that the same society that was averse even to  touch a scavenger, today readily purchases products (even eatables) prepared by the hands of these very scavengers.

Now these women have organized themselves into self-help groups and are availing credit facilities from banks so that they can market their products effectively and sustain their life.

In May 2006 a new batch of 28 trainees was admitted in the centre been started as some more women from Hazuri Gate expressed their of the profession. A survey was organised in order to make Alwar a scavenging – free town. Sixty nine women from the city were further admitted to Nai Disha, was a total of 115 women were rehabilitated, on the eve of world Toilet Day, 19th November 2005, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak declared scavenging-free town. Two of the rehabilitated and liberated scavenger women from Alwar, Usha Chaumar and Guddi attended the World Water Forum from 12th to 14th March 2012 at Marseille, France along with Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak.

For scavenging communities, ‘morning prayers’ in the nearby temple do not mean anything nor makes promise of a better future, rather, the break of the dawn mark and start of a new day when they moved out with a broom and a metal tray in their hands into a gloomy future that cast a long dark shadow on their lives. While their veil covered their face, it was unable to hide the shame and humiliation, their soul suffered.

In May 2006, a new batch of 28 trainees were admitted in the Nai Disha Centre, who expressed their desire to come out of the profession of scavenging and give-up the life of indignity. These women were motivated to join Nai Disha with an ultimate goal to make themselves economically independent as this is the only means to eliminate the evil of scavenging from the societal roots. At Nai Disha, the process of metamorphosis of many lives began. Keeping in mind the individual interests, their education module was divided into four components, namely, the food processing, tailoring, beauty care and a compulsory adult education.

A survey was organized in order to make Alwar a ‘scavenging-free town’. Sixty nine women from city were further admitted to Nai Disha, and a total of 115 women were rehabilitated. The Nai Disha centre enriched them with high respect in Society as well as at their home.

On the eve of World Toilet Day, the 19th November 2009, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak declared ‘Alwar’ of Rajasthan a ‘scavenging-free’ town and thereby, the age-old practice of manual scavenging and physical carrying of night soil with the history of 5000 years of untouchability and social discrimination, stands changed.

nai-disha-11The rehabilitated and liberated scavengers from Alwar Nai Disha Centre, viz. Usha Chaumar, President of Sulabh International Social Service Organisation and another such Guddi Athwal attended the World Water Forum from 12th to 14th March 2012 at Marseille, France along with Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, Founder, Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement.

The Alwar model which Sulabh has developed can be adopted elsewhere. The Nai Disha centres slowly but appropriately moulded and shaped not only their lives but also their spirits. Their daily routine has been totally changed. It begins with prayers and rituals and often a visit to the nearby Jagannath Temple which was earlier out of bounds for them. This is manifested in a manner in which the women clad in blue sarees now sing “Hum Honge Kamyab” with great pride.