Wind of Change Blowing for Rajni

By Bipin Kumar, freelance writer

Never in the history of civilization had times turned the tide so fast. Terms like renaissance, revolution, rebirth et al got redefined within a short span of 4 years. This isn’t a long saga of some great men! This is a small story of a whole hamlet of lowly women who till as early as 4 years back carried nightsoil of civilized people like us on their heads. And now renamed by Sulabh, which rescued them, princesses of Alwar, they used to get starvation wages. At most a tenner for cleaning excreta of a fellow human being. And of course some largesse, doled out with utmost care lest these untouchables should touch their benefactor. Precisely some leftovers to eat and water poured from a distance. Rajni remembers cleaning toilets of brahmans and baniyas whom she served right from her childhood days and continued until four years back when Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, with his Gandhian zeal and modern approach, ventured into her otherwise untouchable locality and changed their lot.

“He was a godsend and turned around our life,” said Rajni Athwal of village Vair, Bharatpur, Rajasthan. For a while it might sound a bit of flattery. But on second thoughts you are bound to endorse Rajni’s statement. For Dr. Pathak was really a good Samaritan, who did more for Rajni than her gods had ever bothered to do for her. Rajni, 25, could have been educated and landed a job in this country which is so abuzz with reservation in jobs for the scheduled castes. But she had not even heard of reservations, nor was anybody else in the colony where she lived aware of it.

In an hour long conversation, Rajni, the comely lady, unwound herself as confidently as she could. Father: Moolchand Dhandhoria. Mother: name not known. Husband: Rajesh Athwal. Children: 3 girls and 1 boy. This is all about her close family. But then, says Rajni, she had her own society, status, rites and rituals. Married at a tender age of 12, for Rajni, sasural (in-laws’ house) became her home, where recently she helped her sister-in-law get married with all white goods like TV, fridge, cooler, beds, etc. as gifts. Thank God! Dowry hasn’t caught up with these people. “But still this marriage did cost our family more than Rs. 1.5 lakh,” says Rajni with a bit of pride. Poorie, Chawal, Subji (bread, rice and vegetables) and other delicacies were there to be served.

So let’s get into her economics, then and now, before she was liberated by Sulabh. A tenner per head meant a paltry sum of Rs. 200 a month, plus around a thousand bucks added by her husband Rajesh who still is a daily wager. That comes to Rs. 1200 per month for a family of six. And in fact all of them are below 30 years of age. Huddled together in a one-room tenement, Rajni, tall and fair, had her share of other unhappy experiences too. Lecherous looks and abusive neighbours. Country liquor flowed in the vicinity where the family lived.

But then the underdogs too have their day. Dr. Pathak descended on the scene, just to give a fair deal to the fair sex. A Sulabh centre called Nai Disha got established at Alwar. It brought all of them under its roof. Time had turned in their favour. Rajni and her ilk had been pulled out of hell. Rajni got trained as a beautician who could do manicure and pedicure. She also learnt how to roll papads. Now she is getting a sum of Rs. 1800 which is likely to be Rs. 2000 very soon. Her lot has improved. In fact it is a sea-change by any yardstick. Her kids are going to government school. Rajni quite often goes to meet their teacher so that their progress can be assessed. Apart from the monetary status, what Rajni enjoys the most is her new avtar (rebirth). Now people don’t behave as if she is untouchable. In fact, after the news reached the village that these lowly ladies are going places, more importantly UN, villagers’ stance changed. “Now they offer us chair and share a cup of tea,” gushed out an exuberant Rajni. Her items are now sold everywhere at Alwar. Even sales are arranged for this purpose.

Now you may be tempted to know the modus operandi of this centre. Nai Disha, true to its name, has shown new ways for a humane life. And it has shown the door to an age-long inhuman practice. Eight hours long work-day begins at 9 in the morning. Papads, besan, wicks, noodles, etc. are some run of the mill businesses that run smoothly along with the beauty parlour trade. Nimble jobs like facial, manicure and pedicure from the erstwhile untouchable hands is a concept only Dr. Pathak could have dared to conceive. But then, he is a ‘daredevil’, an enfant terrible from his early days when in a conservative society of Bihar (poor in production, rich in tradition) he thought of latrines for all while not many (even affluent people) had one. Another such centre is coming at Tonk, again in Rajasthan. Sulabh pays Rs. 1800 initially as stipend to its blue saree clad members. Even by conservative estimate this is 6 times more than what they earned through an act they hated themselves more than any one else.

Once Gandhiji said, “I may not be born again, but if it happens I will like to be born in a family of scavengers, so that I may relieve them of the inhuman, unhealthy and hateful practice of carrying nightsoil.” Probably Gandhiji has a new avtar in Dr. Pathak who realized Gandhiji’s wish with a single stroke of genius. That of course has many benefits. It’s a giant leap forward in this International Year of Sanitation 2008. It’s abolition of untouchability without any bloodletting, at least for the group of women who are enrolled as members of Nai Disha. And most importantly these untouchable women are now gainfully employed. Last but not the least important is the honour restored to them.

But what was government doing all these years? Ask Rajni this pertinent question and you would be cut short by a monosyllable: vada i.e. promise of a house and other facilities. Hope Rajni comes to know of this again through Sulabh Movement and get due advantage for her children – Shivani, Kareena and Monica and her son Raja. Names of her daughters raised my curiosity. Hold on! All of them are named after film and TV soap stars. The wind of change is blowing !