Pushpa: A Transformation

By Prof. Siddheshwar Dhari Sinha, former Dean, Ranchi University

Pushpa Devi had been working as a scavenger for six years at Alwar. “I used to clean human excreta manually at three houses, getting Rs. 600/- per month, equal to fifteen dollars. Sometimes, pieces of bread were thrown at me from distance after cleaning latrines and I was asked to go away immediately.  My husband, Sunil, was a sweeper. He was drowned in a well. We couldn’t maintain our family by our meager earning. I lived at an untouchables’ colony.” Here is her full story in her own words.

“One day Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, Founder of Sulabh International, visited our colony and asked us to change our profession, for he was willing to provide an alternate source of earning livelihood. Consequently, I visited Nai Disha, a rehabilitation centre run by Sulabh, and was trained there for various jobs for about 2 years. I got a stipend of Rs. 2000/- per month and learnt sewing, embroidery, how to make pickles, papads and other eatables which were sold and were in great demand in markets. Even caste Hindus bought them. Nobody ever raised any objection, although they were prepared by former scavengers. This had really changed the mind-set of the people about us. Now, we were not hated by caste Hindus, who used to treat us shabbily before.

“When we used to draw water from their wells, our pots were broken and we were pushed down and beaten. We used to clean their latrines and made their lives neat and clean but they hated us and treated us worse than animals. I used to live such a hellish life while doing a sub-human job.

“One day I was wondering, while carrying a container of head-load of human excreta whether some day a messiah would come to change the course of my life.  And lo, here he was in bandi and kurta, visibly moved by deep compassion, standing before me in the untouchables’ colony at Alwar. The rest is the end of my saga of suffering. God, bless this messiah!”.

I asked Pushpa whether she did manual scavenging and she said, ‘yes’, it meant that she came in direct contact with human excreta and her hands were soiled by it. “A scavenger has to crawl through a narrow passage sometimes, pushing the basket with one hand, resting his or her body weight on the other to make way up to the latrine chamber through a narrow opening. And in the latrine the seat was deep inside. She had to stretch her hand to the maximum and thrust the head into the hole to clean the toilet. They had to bend forward into the narrow space to clean excreta.

Human excreta drops directly on the floor which wears out and the brick-work becomes patchy, uneven and human excreta gets stuck everywhere to the sidewalls and the floor which are scratched for maximum cleaning. It is also a common sight to see human excreta trickling over her face, while carrying it over head. Scavengers are underpaid, shabbily treated and live a life of degradation, unheard of in human history,” as described by an expert.

Pushpa was liberated by Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak from such a hellish life and so she considers him a great redeemer, almost a god for her and other scavengers. She shared her experiences with me. She told me with tears trickling down her cheeks that she couldn’t have imagined such a transformation in her life. The pent-up emotions  of Pushpa gushed out like a fountain. “Oh, God! What a sea- change now”, she exclaimed.

Now, her son goes to school. Her father Mohan Lal is happy and satisfied with her life. Her first husband Sunil was a sweeper but the second man she married is a labourer. They were not earning enough earlier. However, she is much better now, picked up from dust by a messiah who burst upon the scene of suffering at Alwar in Rajasthan. The liberated women scavengers are now called the new princesses of Alwar by Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak. I asked her whether she liked being addressed as princess of Alwar. She smiled with satisfaction, being lifted up, dignity restored. She told me that no princess is being respected so much now.

Nai Disha has brought a social change, proved a turning point in her life; it is really a ray of hope down the dark tunnel of life. Other scavengers also want such a transformation in their lives and request her to approach Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak to arrange for their rehabilitation also.

I noticed a great change in her life. Her saree was neat and clean and her teeth were shining, while she was talking to me with tremendous self-confidence. She was talking politely and courteously. I asked a few questions in English and she replied in correct English. I asked her whether she was remarried after her first husband died. She replied “yes”. She told me that her English teacher Priyanka used to teach them English exactly in the way I had taught them.

She said, “Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak made us self-reliant and confident. Now people respect us. It is he who has brought us into the mainstream of society. We shared the dais with the former President of India, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and central ministers on the occasion of World Toilet Summit held recently in New Delhi. The Prince of Orange of the Netherlands had also graced the occasion. Now, we are going to New York by air. We were also blessed by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and interacted with him freely. We were invited to dinner in five star hotels and also went to Patna by air. This was quite unimaginable for us until recently.

“Of course, all this is symbolic”, says Pushpa, “but it has set a trend and after long neglect and suppression we seem to have woken up to a new life of freedom and dignity. We’re really re-born in a sense. Others also talked of our miseries and misfortunes, troubles and tribulations, but none came forward to liberate us with technologies and by providing us opportunities to sit with them, to dine with them and to fly with them.

“This is unheard of. It is a new milestone in human emancipation”, said Pushpa, with tears trickling down her cheeks in the Conference Hall of Sulabh International Social Service Organisation.

When the interview with Pushpa was over, she retraced her steps and asked, “Sir, have untouchables like us been treated so shabbily in India from time immemorial?” I took her back and we sat to discuss the problem of untouchability in India. It’s quite true that untouchables were discriminated and ill-treated for years in India. But Ram tasted the berries, offered by Sabri, who was his devout devotee. She was also an untouchable. So was Kewat Raj, who became his friend later. Balmiki, who wrote an epic, The Ramayan, on him, was also an untouchable. Lord Ram’s sons – Lav and Kush – were brought up at his cottage, his wife Sita was exiled and asked by the Rishi to take shelter in his ashram. Lord Ram used to respect Balmiki. So, there are two currents flowing simultaneously in opposite directions in Indian culture.

Chanakya gave a ruling that an untouchable would be sentenced to death, if he killed anyone but a Brahmin would be only exiled. He was a Brahmin. But Chandra Gupta, who was a Shudra king, accepted this ruling of his Prime Minister. Balmiki, Vyas and Ambedkar were untouchables but caste Hindus followed them, accepted their codes of conduct and constitutions. So, there was integration. There was a sense of equality and seers, saints and sages  wished the well-being of all living beings throughout ages and yet it is also true that untouchables have been oppressed, suppressed, crushed and depressed in India for thousands of years.

When I answered her questions her hatred towards caste Hindus turned into love as she came to know that untouchables were also respected in India.

Further, I told her that Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak didn’t only change her life and thoughts he has also changed mine, I don’t feel ill at ease, while dining and talking with you. “The mind-set of teeming millions has been changed in India by this social reformer”, Pushpa told me at the end of the story.

“The making of papads and pickles and other eatables has brought social revolution in the country as did two-pit, pour-flush toilets,” she commented , while leaving me.

I  yelled, “oh yes, bye”.