Goodbye to Veil Now

Shubhendu Parth, editor with

The veil covering her face was part of her culture – a tradition of the profession that she had inherited as a 10-year old from her mother, something that she hated to do but was forced to continue with even after her marriage. And the veil hid her identity from the world that even shied away from her shadow, for fear of getting polluted because she handled ‘their’ nightsoil, broom and small metal tray in hand, and carried the bucket full of shit on her head to dispose it of in a nearby open nullah (drain).

She was not averse to the profession as a manual scavenger, even though the country prohibited employment of manual scavengers for cleaning of dry latrines not connected to proper drainage, because despite her tender age life had taught that it was important for her to earn money to help parents make ends meet. She did not mind that the work was nauseating and dirty and that she frequently had stomach problems, thanks to the highly contagious work environment, but what irked her to the core was that people kept her at bay denying her the respect and dignity she deserved as a human being.

Meet Rani Athwal, the 35-year old liberated scavenger from Hazoori Gate at Alwar district of Rajasthan. And she was not alone from the family and the locality who carried the burden of cleaning society, the burden that bowed her head in shame, so much so that even her children found it embarrassing to talk about freely on what their mother did to ensure two square meals for them. Rani was considered the ‘polluter’ by the same people whose refuse she cleaned to rid them of the ‘dirt’ everyday. And her pain became unbearable at times because not only was she considered untouchable – she was used to it – but also because people literally threw the paltry Rs. 10 or food, or kept it on the ground and left before she could pick up her due. At times, it was a near dogfight, with canine on prowl for its share of food.

No wonder she preferred the veil covering her face, something that gave her the anonymity and also hid the agony, the despair, the anger, the hatred, and above all the shame and the humiliation that she went through every moment after dawn. The sunrise, which otherwise brought rays of hope for billions across the globe outshining the obscurity and gloominess of the night, for her meant the beginning of yet another disgraceful day.

Not that she never got a respite, for after learning the tricks of the trade from her mother she initially used to accompany before starting to serve nearly 15 houses at Bharatpur, her native place – and the art of surviving the nauseating filth and cleaning other people’s toilets for four years, she was married to Hazoori Gate resident and a petty contractor Omprakash Athwal. The next couple of years were like an extended honeymoon for her, for it was a life that began with the daily household chores that a rural Indian woman aspires for – from waking up to the hopes that the sunrise brought, to setting and arranging her home and cooking food for her husband and the family. But the honeymoon was over sooner than she expected.

Rani was soon joined by her sisters-in-law (wives of her husband’s brothers) in her ordeal as her husband Omprakash Athwal and his three brothers, all working as labourers, besides her mother-in-law, who is a scavenger herself, could not earn enough to feed the fast growing joint family. “Women in our society are taught to clean toilets in their early teens. It’s like a tradition passed on for generations, from grandmother to mother to daughters,” she says as a matter of fact, but with the pain of the experience clearly visible on her face.

And money, well it became slightly higher, Rs. 15 per month for every household; she also was handling nearly 20 households now, taking her monthly income to Rs. 300 per month! But that was not enough for her four kids to hide away the shame of being a scavenger’s children. “At times, I wanted to run away from them so that they are saved from the trauma of becoming untouchables,” she says. Nonetheless, she managed to keep her three daughters away from the profession, though poverty forced her 18-year old son to quit studies in class seven and join his father and uncles as a labourer.

However, her resolve to keep the daughters away from the road full of shit did prove stronger than growing financial pressures. Though her two older daughters had to quit studies in class seven, she got them admitted to learn stitching and embroidery. “In many cases, girls escape the trauma of getting into this job early. However, once married, not much escape route is there and in most of the cases daughters-in-law are coerced into the traditional system,” she says, talking about the scores of women who are not as lucky as her daughters. It was also about her determination not to let them go through the same ordeal and nauseating experience and ensure that their lives change forever.

Not that her family did not object. They certainly did, but Rani was lucky enough to somehow convince everybody that their children deserved a better life than the life hidden by veils. Lucky she certainly was, as nearly after 14 years of working as a scavenger at Alwar, her life changed for the better when Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, Founder of Sulabh International, along with ‘Suman Ma’am’ visited Hazoori Gate some five years back. “She asked us whether we would give up scavenging if we get an alternative work and we said we would,” Rani says recounting the day when she first realised that the world had opportunities for her, beyond rummaging through filth.

Her moment of freedom came soon as she was part of the first batch of 28 women selected for the project that was started by Nai Disha centre of Sulabh organisation on April 23, 2003. “This is when our transformation happened. I felt overwhelmed and liberated from this abominable profession,” she says while narrating her story in Hindi, interspersed with English that she has been taught during her last five years at the Alwar centre.

However, like any change, it was not an easy tale of transformation for Rani. The initial three months were that of financial struggle for her and the entire Athwal family, for suddenly a fixed source of income had dried up. Rani’s perseverance and convincing skills, as well as her determination to get out of the hellish life paid off again, with her husband and mother-in-law finally agreeing to give her a chance to experiment and pull out the family from the drudgery. “It was a matter of looking at short term goal of making ends meet versus that of improving the overall financial condition of the family, as also that of an attempt to improve our social status, and the latter won, for we all agreed that not every scavenger gets an opportunity to end his plight,” says Rani.

At the centre, the 28 liberated scavengers were first given basic training in hygiene and cleanliness. Once they had adjusted to the new “clean” way of life, they were given training in vocational courses – food processing, tailoring, stuffed toys and beauty care. The centre also focused on education – making them learn how to read and write – through an adult literacy programme. Soon, Rani found herself rolling the small dough into thin, flat circles, one after another to make one of the traditional Indian snacks – papads – and was earning Rs. 1,500 per month, nearly five times the amount she would make as a scavenger. Not to forget the fact that her new life was away from the stench of the life that had often led the more affluent in society to even ban them from entering temples. Soon, she was also preparing noodles and pickles, to be sold to the same people who had once shooed her away, a phenomenon unthinkable in the still ‘traditional’ caste-based Indian society. Two years down the line, her stipend was raised to Rs. 1,800 and then again to Rs. 2,000 this year.

With the monthly stipend improving the family’s position, Rani soon became the ‘role model’ for her clan. However, her moment of pride came when, as part of the World Toilet Summit in November 2007, she participated in the fashion show where HRH the Prince of Orange of the Netherlands, Willem-Alexander, besides other dignitaries from the United Nations and the world were present. The 10-year old girl who began her life cleaning human excreta had by now become the poster girl of India’s fight against the age-old system of manual scavenging by a particular caste. Her  veil has since 2003 been replaced by the traditional pallu (head covering), the symbol of a woman’s dignity.