Usha Wants to Dedicate Her Life to Scavengers

Brij Khandelwal

usha-chaumar-sulabh-thumbVery often we form opinions from theoretical positions and deep ingrained prejudices that obstruct our vision. It happened when I met this woman recently at a place where we would not normally expect rubbing shoulders with the so-called “Wretched of the Earth.” It was on the eve of International Women’s Day programme organized by Sulabh International at Hotel Intercontinental in New Delhi where I caught a glimpse of reality of today’s India.

A group of 28 women from Rajasthan’s Alwar district was interacting with ivory tower intellectuals and media persons, answering questions on a variety of subjects and trying to satisfy their curiosity about changing socio-economic scene in the vast rural hinterland of a tradition-bound social order that still retained its feudal character. The women, unschooled in urban manners and once totally illiterate, were taking questions with a felicity and ease that was refreshing. It seemed difficult to believe that till the other day these women were manual scavengers, the lowest rung of the social ladder. Today they were elegantly draped in blue sarees. The group displayed a sense of comfort and confidence that can come only from a degree of recognition and achievements.

One of them, Usha Chaumar, clearly stood out and drew notice as she exuded a high level of confidence. She was strutting around and enjoying being in conversation with the representatives of the media. In an exclusive interview with this correspondent, she spoke with brutal candour but without betraying the slightest bitterness of a life that preceded her liberation from manual scavenging. She spoke Hindi with a dollop of words from English and even this innocent linguistic mix gave evidence of a paradigm shift in her life. Her life and her experiences in her own words:

“While working as manual scavengers, our lives bristled with indignities and humiliation. Indeed, we were treated as sub-humans and untouchables and we suffered all manner of restrictions and exclusions. We lived on such wages as consisted of merely a few crumbs of bread and payment of a paltry sum at the end of the month.

“I am thirty three-year old, born at Deeg in the Bharatpur district of Rajasthan. I began scavenging when I was just seven years old. When I was a little child I would often insist on getting a broom from my mother so that I could do scavenging. The disposal of human excreta was the only thought that dominated my imagination. My shifting to Alwar after marriage at the age of ten brought me no relief as I continued to remain trapped in this inhuman occupation even in my husband’s place.

“As if it were a divine intervention, Baba – Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak (Usha has a strong feeling of respect and admiration for Pathakji, so she calls him Baba which implies reverence for the elders), Founder, Sulabh International – visited our colony at Alwar some five years ago. He asked us if he gave us an alternative work would we give up scavenging. We said we would. This is when our transformation began. We felt overwhelmed. We were liberated from this abominable profession. We could not afford to let go this opportunity. This was a defining moment in our lives. Baba established Nai Disha, a centre of Sulabh International at Alwar which became the centre for the production of pickles, papads, noodles and other eatables. In this way, Sulabh generated gainful employment for us. As the eatables prepared by us at Nai Disha have begun selling in markets, it has become a guarantee for our stable long-term employment. Quite a few of us are working at the centre and earning our livelihood. Our affiliation to Nai Disha has not only given us economic independence but also human dignity. Now people address me as ‘Madam’ and they have no objection to eating things made by me. I have ceased to be an untouchable. Working at Nai Disha I get a stipend of Rs. 2000 a month and I add another thousand to my income putting in some extra work privately.

“I cannot help being emotional when recalling my life as a scavenger. The life then was simply too horrible: I would often be sick and get exposed to all kinds of health problems. I would suffer a headache, body-ache and a whole lot of other complications. During the time of work if I turned thirsty people would not give me water for drinking and if they would, only from a distance lest they should get polluted. I would get even my negligible monthly payment from my clients from a distance as they would fear being harmed by being too close to me. I was considered less than a human being and this always made me feel miserable.  I would never dare be absent from my work and if I ever did, even for a single day, I would be an object of abuse and vituperation. The worst experience I had as a scavenger was when at Alwar, once I dumped human excreta at a place where the municipal authorities had objected to. They could not stomach this defiance and began hurling abuses at me. They asked me to remove the shit and if I refused, they threatened, my father and grandfather would have to do it. I stuck to my guns and did not remove the shit. But this angered them so much that they not only resumed  ranting  against me but also threatened me with physical violence. Then I gave up and removed the shit as ordered by them. But the incident left me with a feeling of abject helplessness and humiliation. This still hurts me.

“I have come to Delhi to attend the Women’s Day meeting and to interact with the media on this occasion. The meeting is being held in a big hotel. I feel so happy attending it. I never thought I would visit such a big hotel and eat there. Previously when I came to New Delhi, I had met the Prime Minister and the President of India. These are no mean achievements of mine. I am being elevated to the status of the President of Sulabh International Social Service Organisation. I can speak English. I have been taught both Hindi and English. I am soon going to America. Life treated me diabolically in the past but now it is a different situation.

“Indeed, my life has been metamorphed into a pleasant story. But all this has happened thanks to the efforts put in by Baba. He is an embodiment of divinity. He has liberated us from hell, as it were. Baba has done so much for us that words fail me when I want to express my gratefulness to him. It is because of his intervention that I do not feel like a pariah today. I go to temples and offer prayers. I offer prayers both at home and in temples without any fear. There is no interference or objection issuing from any quarter. Baba alone is responsible for our transformation into human beings. He is our god, our Gandhi.

“I have three children and a husband. The latter is an unskilled worker. I am able to make both ends meet now and I feel it a remarkable achievement of my life. I want to acquire ability in running organizations as also in handling public affairs. Once I have learnt about the world I would begin making efforts to get all those still trapped in manual scavenging, freed from the most inhuman occupation.”