In accordance with the theme of the 2008 United Nations’ Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and focusing on 2008 being the International Year of Sanitation, the NGO Section of Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) in collaboration with UN-NGO-IRENE Network invited Sulabh International Social Service Organization to host “Mission Sanitation” to raise awareness and accelerate the progress towards the United Nations Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target to reduce by half the proportion of people lacking access to basic sanitation by 2015. The event showcased the plight of scavenger women in India who suffered from the demeaning and debilitating work of scavenging (cleaning dry privies and carrying human excreta as head-load) that they had to perform and whose lives were subsequently transformed through cost-effective sanitation technologies. With the support of member states and civil society including the media, the show brought sanitation centre-stage to lead better marketing and demand for sanitation promotion worldwide. This event also highlighted how social transformation can be brought about through the application of sustainable sanitation technologies.

During the special event ‘Sanitation for Sustainable Development’, H.E. Mr. Vijay Nambiar, Chef de Cabinet of the Secretary-General crowned Mrs. Usha Chaumar, an erstwhile woman scavenger of Alwar, who alongwith Mrs. Sushila Chauhan addressed the august gathering of UN representatives from various countries from the podium of the United Nations in the Trusteeship Council Hall on July 2, 2008.

Addressing the august gathering of delegates and representatives from various countries, in his speech, the Chief Guest, H.E. Mr. Vijay Nambiar, Chef de Cabinet of the Executive Office of the Secretary-General, United Nations, said, “Globally, to reach the MDG target, 173 million people will need to gain access to clean water and sanitation over the period leading upto 2015. This will sound like a huge undertaking and let us be honest, it actually is, but it is much less costly or complicated than dealing with the fall-out from inaction. If we don’t reach this target we consign millions of people to indignity, suffering and the life threatening risks associated with improper sanitation and unclean water.” He said that he was particularly struck by the social revolution aspect which has been initiated by the Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement led by Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak around 40 years ago.

“As one of the largest pan-Indian social service organizations working to promote environmental sanitation, health and hygiene and the propagation of new methods of non-conventional energy generation, Sulabh International has made a significant contribution to the larger social agenda of restoring human dignity and bringing empowerment to previously disenfranchised communities in India. Your best practices have served as models for other communities around the world. They also need to be levelled up around regions and across urban and rural communities. Water is elemental to life, to our lives and to our planet. All levels of society, government, civil society, business and the international community need to be part of a global effort. Together let us make sure that the most basic human needs are met, for one and all.”

Mr. Amir Dossal, Executive Director, The United Nations’ Office for Partnership said that in South-east Asia alone, the lack of proper sanitation cost 2 billion dollars. He commended Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, Founder, Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement,  saying, “Of the 2.6 billion people who are impacted by the lack of proper sanitation etc. you are addressing 700 million people in India and that kind of initiative should be replicated in other parts of the world and of course I am very grateful to you for highlighting the issues of partnerships.” He also said, “at the end of the day, private sectors can play a role, one has to see where is the economic incentive and Dr. Pathak, you have clearly highlighted that, by bringing in the scavenger women out of that kind of a difficult environment and making them wage earners. You are giving us material to say, here is progress and you can do more with this. I want to thank you very much for doing that.”

Mr. Thomas Stelzer, Assistant Secretary-General, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, spoke of the time-bound sanitation goals articulated in Johannesburg Plan which reflected the earlier mandates of Agenda 21 as well as the suggestion of fresh water management and sanitation adopted with the Sixth Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). Sanitation was addressed as a major issue in the first schematic class considered by the CSD at its 12th Session. On the basis of that review CSD-13 recommended strategies and policy action to address the constraints and continuing challenges faced in implementing the commitments, goals and targets on sanitation agreed in Johannesburg. He said “I welcome the initiative of Sulabh International Social Service Organisation and the honourable promotion of sustainable development by creating and implementing improved sanitation technologies worldwide. Sulabh International has demonstrated how social and economic transformation can be brought about through the adoption of these technologies. We at United Nations are proud to celebrate with Sulabh the restoration of human dignity to the women scavengers of Alwar in India, as well as vital issue of sanitation.”

The two other erstwhile women scavengers of Alwar who shared the dais with them were Mrs. Usha Chaumar and Mrs. Sushila Chauhan, both liberated and rehabilitated at Sulabh International’s Nai Disha Centre in Alwar. Everyone was taken by surprise when Usha Chaumar started her speech in English, “Good Morning Ladies and Gentleman, My name is Usha Chaumar, I am from Nai Disha, Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, Alwar, Rajasthan, India. Since March 2003, I was doing scavenging work and carrying nightsoil on my head. I remember the day when after cleaning an enclosure, as I was carrying the human excreta suddenly some of it fell on my head. That is one incident I am unable to forget. I first used to accompany my mother and sister. At 14, I got married but marriage did not bring any change in my life. Same work which I used to do with my mother, I now began doing with my mother-in-law. I have faced insult and untouchability. Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, Founder Sir, visited our locality and discussed our problem. He has opened a centre for us – Nai Disha. It is a training-cum-production centre. At Nai Disha we have been trained in embroidery, stitching and making papads and pickles. Now we are working in self-help group and marketing products prepared by our other sisters at the centre. Earlier I was illiterate. I did not know how to read and write. Today I am standing in front of all of you. We never thought in our dreams that one day we will be participating in this meeting. It is my request that all my brothers and sisters engaged in this dirty occupation should be rehabilitated and trained like us. On behalf of all my sisters, thank you very much for giving me this opportunity.”

It was astonishing to see that she, who used to do the work of scavenging till March 2003, was able to learn not only how to read and write in Hindi taught in the adult literacy classes but also learn to speak in English which she did very confidently. A standing ovation was given to her for this. H.E. Vijay Nambiar crowned her as the President of Sulabh International Social Service Organisation.

In order to promote awareness of sanitation issues, Mission Sanitation showcased the plight of women scavengers in India. The programme included a fashion show with these rehabilitated women scavengers who, accompanied by prominent models wearing Indian garments embroidered by them, walked the ramp in the United Nations with great pride and grace.

This prestigious event helped highlight how social transformation and reform can be brought about through the application of sustainable sanitation technologies towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals.