Dreams are Shaping up at Alwar

Girendra Nath, Delhi-based journalist

There is no dearth of people in Indian society who dream for others. Mostly such dreams are about social uplift. These are original and outstanding. It’s tough to realize them. But if they come true, I bet, society is sure to be swept by a revolution. Something of the sort is taking place in the sprawling Harijan basti of Hazoori Gate in Alwar district of Rajasthan. Women who carried nightsoil traditionally in this filthy hamlet are increasingly getting associated with enterprises that earn them honour besides money.

A renowned NGO, Sulabh International, is all out to make a revolutionary change in the scenario. What is remarkable here is an emphasis on all-round development of women who till some time back carried human excreta on their heads. Even they are quite enthusiastic about their bid to effect the change. A change is in the air. Shakuntala Chaumar is one such precursor of change.

In her own words, “flying in an aeroplane was a dream for me. All I knew about it was there’s something that flies and makes earth-shattering sound. But now this is a reality for me. For the first time I flew to Patna and now I would fly to America.” An indomitable spirit is what she has become. The way she talks and walks exudes confidence usually found in educated women. This change in Shakuntala might appear commonplace but for her it has been an ordeal by fire all through her life. In her own words, “when I decided to call it a day people mocked at me. Are you a ‘madam’ or what, they used to say. Even my family members were skeptical. They asked how long can Sulabh be your support? But never did I lose my heart and within four years my life has changed beyond imagination.”

Now after a long chat with journalists in a five star hotel or a ramp walk with models, there’s nothing that can stop her. Instead of walking with faeces on her head she now is in the business of papads, pickles, embroidery and boutique. As stipend Sulabh pays her two thousand rupees per month. With a childlike verve, Shakuntala, mother of four, asks, “shall I show you how to write my name?” This is a question ordinary women of India would like to ask provided they are given a chance to pick up the thread of literacy. Any number of women are there in all corners of India who dream of becoming Shakuntala. But it takes the indomitable spirit of Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, Sulabh Founder, to transform their dream into a reality.

Noted playwright and lyricist Prasoon Joshi in a popular movie Rang De Basanti had made a remarkable point through a character who says, “There are two ways of living. One, live life as it comes…else get the damn thing changed.” Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak chose the latter and these women are recasting themselves in an altogether different mould.

Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak calls these women the princesses of Alwar. He is of the view that daughters are the princesses of their parents. These women are like his daughters and hence the princesses. Shakuntala Chaumar too is a princess. She is the missing link that (if found earlier) could have effected the desired change much earlier. But now that she has arrived this society would get strengthened.

She is working her way to financial stability. In her own words, “I have learnt how to save money. I save Rs. 500 per month.” Apart from this she wants to live up to her dormant wishes and desires. In her own words Shakuntala “bought a TV from her first salary.” Next is the turn of a fridge. Any number of such wishes that tossed and turned inside earlier are now the highlights of this Hazoori Gate (basti) for there are many others who have been picked up by Sulabh and offered an opportunity to change their lot.

Shakuntala is thoughtful of her future. She herself revealed that she would start her own business. She loves doing the sewing and embroidery job. For her children her aim is unambiguous: “I have to make them all educated. They can then be independent. By now I have learnt how important education is. All four of my children would pursue it.” The most remarkable thing Shakuntala says as a refrain is: Now I have got confidence. This is indicative of the fact that change is not solely about material comforts; rather it instills a confidence unfelt earlier. Shakuntala Chaumar is trying to bring this fact to the fore.

Usually neo-literates fail to sustain their interest in study. Shakuntala is an exception. She takes time out to study 4-5 hours a day. She is trying hard to make her husband literate. Even her parents, Ghaziabad based, are happy that she left the dirty job and her efforts to be a literate are paying off well. Now she has a request to make to her sir (Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak), “He should try to do something for my husband as he did for me so that everyone in my family may keep pace with changing India.”

Her past still dogs her. Old memories moisten her eyes and with a heavy heart she starts praying, “O God! Don’t let me – in fact anyone – see those days again. I want to erase the memory of the horrible past. But at the same time I think how I can forget the struggle that led me to this place.”

Ups and downs are a part and parcel of life, says Shakuntala philosophically. Earlier she used to have merely two hundred rupees a month. For that she used to go door-to-door collecting faeces. It was when she came to Alwar after marriage.

After a formal visit by Sulabh in 2004 a breeze of change in the local life was clearly seen. Once the pace set in, it seemed as if the change would sweep the entire locality. People’s perception of sanitation became talk of the town. So many women who carried excreta on their heads are increasingly getting attached to this movement and the ‘lone crusader’ has a full caravan now.

It’s an effort of just an institution and the collective consciousness that has emerged is colossal. So many Shakuntalas now breathe fresh air. They have got the voice, the guts. This is a true picture of changing India that doesn’t need any advertisement. Putting our house in order is what we need the most. At the same time Shakuntalas must be given their due place in society. With this message, my words, hopefully, would be heard far and wide.