Doom to Resurrection

By Abhinav Garg, Delhi-based journalist

Although Rajni Nanda belonged to a family of untouchables, her understanding of scavenging was quite different until her marriage. Her family would set out early in the morning from their quarters and reach the village to resume their daily grind, which involved removal of cowdung from households and occasional clearing of the clogged drains, for which they would be rewarded by being supplied free food.  That is how they subsisted. But Rajni Nanda’s marriage at the age of 18 took her deeper into this grimy world. Wedded into a family involved in a similar occupation at Alwar, the bride was shocked to realise that here manual scavenging chiefly meant carrying nightsoil by clearing of dry latrines – something she had never done in her parental home in Haryana.

“The first morning after my marriage I woke up to see my mother-in-law and nanad (sister-in-law) not in the house. Even as I cooked for my husband a quick lunch of chapattis (breads) and pickles, I suddenly became aware of a terrible stench of human excreta enveloping our small house. And I saw my in-laws walking in, covered in dust, dirt, with bits of excreta sticking to their clothes,”recalls Rajni Nanda. Gradually, she discovered that she had no option but to assist her husband’s family in eking out a livelihood by carrying nightsoil, something which India’s laws explicitly prohibit. She couldn’t eat properly for weeks and it was only after day in and day out manual scavenging dulled her senses. She managed to get her appetite back – albeit while resigned to her fate.

Now, three kids in tow, she is amazed how her fate changed. She is no longer associated with scavenging, nor is anyone in her immediate family forced to take to this detestable occupation. Her uplift from that morass began when one day a relative informed Rajni Nanda how one of her friends had been rehabilitated by Sulabh International – a progressive movement committed to removing manual scavenging. That night, after being told by her relative of the presence of Sulabh International nearby, when Rajni Nanda confided to her husband and children, they spurred her on, encouraging her to find out more and approach Sulabh. The very next day, she and her relative both reached its office, registered themselves and volunteered to take part in the rehabilitation programme. “Everyday, I walk several miles to reach the ashram where we have a morning prayer. Then all of us are taught skills like weaving, sewing, pickle making etc. These are then sold in the open market at competitive rates and bring women like Rajni Nanda economic self-sufficiency, making it possible for her to fund her children’s education.

Founded by Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, Sulabh International had started Nai Disha centre for imparting training to former scavengers in different crafts so that they could learn, earn and thus start leading a life of dignity. Today Rajni Nanda and other women scavengers from her district are no longer engaged in the obnoxious profession. Instead they proudly lead a life of economic independence.

Talking about her life, she says: “My parents were unaware of the potential of education. So they inducted me into what they and our forefathers had been doing for centuries, mindlessly, as if it were a fait accompli. Only knowledge and education can bring untouchables out of their wretched condition. Politicians would come to our basti (locality) for votes and claim we are no longer untouchables but have been accepted by society at large. That is hogwash. It is for us to strive, to work hard to educate our children so that they don’t have to do manual scavenging and can lead a life of respect. If they are educated and employed, respect will automatically follow. It is because we are uneducated and poor that the society treats us like untouchables. We have to break this vicious circle.”

The premium on education was something she learnt from her kids. When they saw their mother carry nightsoil and return home stinking, Rajni Nanda recalls, her two daughters and one son would recoil in horror and avoid her. “Why didn’t your parents send you to study, mummy?” says Sonu, her 12-year old son who wants to become computer scientist. Their exhortation played a key role in Rajni Nanda joining Sulabh and their untiring support keeps her going. “My kids were so elated when they saw me write my name ! I felt proud of my family. Now Sonu wants to study in a private school as he says, teachers don’t pay attention in government school where he is presently enrolled. I hope I can fulfil his wish soon,’’ she adds.

Her trip to New York with Sulabh Founder was on the invitation of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA). The event marked the International Year of Sanitation 2008. Officials from 150 countries were expected to participate in the unique event.

For Sulabh’s visionary Founder, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, this was just a small step his organization had taken in providing a life of dignity and independence to women like Rajni Nanda. Post-Independence, it is Dr. Pathak who has been credited with championing the cause of adequate sanitation and uplift of untouchables in India. This is borne by his efforts for the past four decades to keep the ecosystem clean, eradicate manual scavenging and bring these unfortunate souls into the mainstream of society. He has created a pan-Indian network of 50,000 volunteers and runs a movement for sanitation called Sulabh Sanitation Movement which constructs and maintains public toilets where manual scavenging is not involved. A special two-pit toilet Dr. Pathak has designed liberates scavengers from the demeaning task of carrying nightsoil as head-load.