Dr. Pathak Gave Dignity and Respect, says Sunita

By JANAK SINGH, Senior Journalist

That her life was going to be nothing but an ordeal of suffering and hatred without any hope of better tomorrow was becoming clear to Sunita Nanda as she settled down at Alwar as a teenaged bride. Within three to four days of her marriage, she was made to resume scavenging, the odious profession of carrying nightsoil as head-load, in which she had been engaged since childhood in her parents’ home. Giving birth to three children made her look weak and horrid, vomiting and feeling giddy. She was miserable. “There is no god for the poor” were the thoughts often flitting through her mind in the squalid poky hovel, which was her dwelling and where there was nothing to cheer.

But her life took a turn five years ago with the most unexpected visit of a Samaritan to the colony where she lived. He was not distributing bounty but only telling a group of women: “If you stop scavenging I can guide you to an alternative profession, which would help you earn more, give you respect and dignity.” Sunita was also there. As he walked away, Sunita asked her friends: “Was he trying to lead us up the garden path?” Despite misgivings Sunita and other women resolved to turn up at an appointed place to see what he had meant. But they were surprised to discover that the good Samaritan, who was none other than the Founder of Sulabh International, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, really wanted their deliverance from the ugly and nauseating profession of scavenging. He asked them to join Nai Disha, a welfare centre run for the untouchable women by Sulabh. Thus they stopped scavenging, learnt new crafts and started living a better life.

The same Sunita Nanda, who is 32 now, sitting on a chair in the Sulabh complex at Palam Dabri Road in New Delhi with smooth slicked hair, a dab of lipstick on her lips and shining teeth, hardly looked like a scavenger. Emphatically she said:

“Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak is a god incarnate who has changed my life from a miserable scavenger to a woman commanding respect now. I had seen Prime Ministers, Chief Ministers and many VIPs often expressing concern about the untouchables. But nobody did anything. Whereas Sir (Dr. Pathak) has not only given me status and respect, but also completely changed my life. So much so that I have started even looking with nafrat (hatred) at all those who are engaged in cleaning toilets.”

Sunita’s early life was typical of thousands of women in India born and brought up as untouchables, who begin childhood helping their mothers in carrying cans loaded with nightsoil and see no sign of respite or relief even when they are married and when they secretly pray to gods. “I was a scavenger in my parent’s house and had no choice even after marriage. Like my mother-in-law and husband, I was driven to the same profession even before my first child was born”.

“But,” says Sunita, “my life changed from the very day Dr. Pathak visited our mohalla (colony). He offered alternative professions of dignity and respect provided we were willing to give up the ignoble calling. I was among the first batch of women who joined Nai Disha.  And frankly, there has been no looking back since then. The people who would not touch us are now eating papads, pickles made by our hands. The women who would not even look at us are now coming for facials at the beauty salon we run. Our embroidery work is being snapped up by upper class ladies.

“But not to talk of learning various crafts and making products for which there is no dearth of buyers, I’m an educated woman now thanks to Nai Disha. We attend adult literacy classes, where we learn not only Hindi but also English. Seeing me talking in English, and saying “Hello” whenever I meet acquaintances in bazaar and even using “Bye”, as I take leave of them, many people who used to see me engaged in the dirty profession of scavenging  frequently comment: You have become a madam now.

“There is no dearth of happiness and joy in my house, that used to be a place of gloom and doom, virtual hell earlier. Although he is still engaged in scavenging, my husband is so proud of me now.  Even my children are thrilled to see the change. I even have a bank account and withdraw money with my own signature.  I’m the same person who had never seen a bank not to talk of operating an account there. The revolution brought about in my life is not a magic show but a reality for which I’ll ever be beholden to Sir (Dr. Pathak). Nobody has done so much for the uplift of untouchables as Dr. Pathak. He is really our Bhagwan (god).”

Like other members of Nai Disha, Sunita is overjoyed over the prospect of  travelling to New York as part of the Sulabh delegation on the invitation of the U.N. “Recently, Dr. Pathak took us to Patna by air. Travelling by aeroplanes may be an ordinary thing for many but for a person like me who could not even imagine ever in life that one day she would be able to fly is something out of this world. Not only does Dr. Pathak make us travel in planes, he takes us to five-star hotels for lunch and dinner. Not that he wants to flash Sulabh prosperity. All this is intended to make us, who were the very scum of earth until we joined Nai Disha, feel important and dignified like other people. He is doing the greatest service to untouchables. May God grant him long life!  I really wish “meri umar bhi inko mil jaye (the years of my life may be added to his life-span).”

Sunita says now better income – besides Rs. 2000 monthly stipend from Sulabh, she is able to earn something more on the side by working in a boutique also – has not turned her head. “Although my parents remain scavengers, I cannot help visiting them sometime. But I use such opportunities of meeting my near and dear ones  to impress upon them the desirability of giving up scavenging and switching over to other professions which could help them shed the untouchable label. Often people I meet want to turn a new leaf in life like me.  But there is hardly any other institution or organization doing what Sulabh has accomplished. Maybe the situation would change for Sir (Dr. Pathak) has announced that Sulabh would start Nai Disha centres for men also.”