Life has changed for Sevanti Fatrod. Not long ago, Fatrod had got married and shifted to her in-laws' village in the Bhawrasa Nagar Palika in Dewas, Madhya Pradesh. Every morning armed with a basket and scrapping tools, Fatrod would move from house to house to pick up excreta from the dry latrines in her family's jagir , the residences of the well-to-do higher castes. Later in the day she would follow the same route collecting leftover food from the households. The drudgery became even more inhuman during the rains when the content from the basket would trickle down her body causing infections and diseases.

Coming from the Balmiki manual scavenging community in the Hindu caste system, Fatrod and her family members also picked up carcasses of dead animals, beat drums to announce a death in the village, collected clothes of the deceased from cremation ground, cleaned drains, safety tanks and even worse, faced oppression and the scourge of untouchability.

Though leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, BR Ambedkar and Ram Manohar Lohia raised their voice against this inhuman practice, it was as late as in 1993 that manual scavenging was legally banned in the country. A number of big ticket schemes were introduced for the rehabilitation of scavengers and to bring them into the mainstream. But there was little effect. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights made a statement against the practice at its convention in Geneva in 2002. In 2007, a self-employment scheme for rehabilitation was introduced. But on the ground there was little change. Caste designated labour continued unabated and was even institutionalised by the state-owned Indian Railways.

Cut to today. Fatrod is the head of Garima Silai Kendra (stitching centre) in Dewas. Run by a women self-help group, here a dozen sewing machines sing. “We have formed Jagrati , a self-help group of both the Balmiki and Charamkar community. From the new skill we will earn for our children,” says Fatrod. The 45-year-old has come a long way since she used to move from house to house with a basket in hand. She is one of the community leaders thrown up by the movement to rehabilitate scavengers.

How did the change happen? It happened thanks to a combination of grassroots movement, legislation and corporate help.

The start

It was in 2009 that a movement for change began to bubble from the grassroots all across northern and western India. Till then the change was restricted to Dewas. A young activist Ashif Shaikh from Dewas was appalled by the discrimination and in 2000 started Jan Sahas . He brought together scavengers, youth and friends to start Garima Abhiyan and the Maila Mukti Gatbandhan . The two movements advocated that manual scavengers should stop the practice and liberate themselves from caste-based oppression. Surveys undertaken by them estimated that there were nearly 3.5 lakh scavengers across the country. The National Commission for Safai Karamcharis had put the number of dry latrines at 54 lakh in urban and 24 lakh in the rural areas. Ninety-eight per cent of the scavengers were women but government schemes ignored this fact. Schemes offered financial help to buy a vehicle and train the scavenger to be a driver. But in a village environment, this was of no use to women.

Understanding these factors, Shaikh and his associates would visit the homes of manual scavengers in the Hindu and Muslim communities. “At first we kept resisting, arguing that we needed the job to fill our stomachs,” recalls Fatrod. “But then we saw our children being ostracised. They were jeered at, made to sit right at the back of the classroom and even sweep the school. The teacher would touch their copy books with a stick. We realised this indeed was slavery and we decided that we will go hungry but we will not continue the task of manual scavenging.”

As the issue began to agitate, around 2004, 26 women and a man in Dewas came together and burned their scavenging baskets, never to pick them up again. It was a historic gesture. “We had made up our minds, but what came later was not easy to handle,” says Fatrod. “The higher castes were furious. We not only faced a social boycott but didn’t have either a job or money. We had never done any other work and had to run from pillar to post to get hired as manual labour.”

Desperate need for an alternative

It was then that rehabilitation became imperative. In 2002, Jan Sahas , along with State and national rights organisations had formed the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyaan (National Campaign for Dignity and Eradication of Manual Scavenging). Now through the campaign, it intensified efforts at lobbying and forcing change.

Most effective was the “Knocking the Door” campaign that saw liberated scavengers visiting the houses of 65 Parliamentarians, explaining the issue and talking about their lives. “When they met the scavengers in flesh and blood and listened to their tales, many of the Parliamentarians were moved and resolved to take up the matter on the floor of the House,” says Shaikh.

In September 2013, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 was passed by both the Houses of the Parliament. Apart from financial assistance, it promised that one adult member from every manual scavenger family will be trained in a livelihood skill with a monthly stipend. Later a subsidy and concessional loan would be given to the person for an alternative occupation.

Since the passing of the Bill, several agencies, including those of the UN, the private sector, government and civil society, have been on the job of rehabilitation. But hurdles still remain. Untouchability is one.

When a manual scavenger was given a loan to start a kirana shop in her village, the only people who patronised it were from her own caste. The shop was shunned by the others. In the same way, when another woman turned into a vegetable vendor, no one would buy from her and she had to shift base to another village. “We then started to send our children on the bicycle to other villages so that their caste would not be detected,” recalls 40-year-old Tasleema Bee from Ujjain. She belongs to the Muslim Hela community that changed its religion years ago to escape caste oppression, but found that the stigma continued. Tasleema says that even liberation did not help. When scavengers looked for employment, they were again offered only cleaning and other related jobs by Gram Panchayats and city corporations.

Picking up new threads

But thanks to the concerted efforts of the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan , the Governments of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are now in different stages of liberation and rehabilitation.

Madhya Pradesh leads the way with more and more scavengers discarding the basket and embracing the pilot projects. Enterprises making garments, agarbatti (incense sticks) and masala as also fisheries are forging ahead to make the difference.

Dewas in Madhya Pradesh is where the rehabilitation is being done with a concerted effort. It's around 44 degrees Celsius outside and the fan in the small room rotates at a slow pace. The heat, however, does not seem to deter the 12 women who are working on their sewing machines. Each is stitching a ladies kurta . The tiny room in a decrepit gulley is the Dignity Garment Production Unit at Bhawrasa, part of a pilot project that provides economic security to scavengers.

“We are happy doing this and learning something we can depend upon for our livelihood,” says 35-year-old Chaman Bee from the Dalit Muslim Hela community. She struggled as a manual labourer and often had no employment, but now has found her forte in stitching garments. Though each of the women earns between ₹1,500 to ₹2,000 a month currently, the earning will increase once they hone their skills.

For the garments pilot project named ‘A Hundred Hands,’ sewing machine manufacturer Usha International has come forward to help. It provides technical training and sewing machines to the eight large production centres and the 50 small units where women are being trained to cut, stitch and design garments that will feed into a private company founded by Shaikh and ‘liberated’ scavengers Lali bai and Aarti. The company was launched in September 2014 by actor Aamir Khan, who named it Dignity & Design. While the women's products are being sold right now at village markets, they soon expect to get orders from established boutiques.

The incense answer

In the temple town of Ujjain, an agarbatti making unit has been set up at Juna Sowmwariya Helawadi. Based out of a large tin shed in the Tarana block and situated close to around 4,000 Hela community households, the unit is headed by Tasleema Bee. Known for her spunk, Tasleema fought an election for the panchayat ward. Despite tremendous opposition from those belonging to the higher caste, she won, thanks to her grit and unity among Dalits in her village.

At the unit, women do not roll the incense sticks by hand in the traditional time consuming manner. They use agarbatti making machines that are fed with charcoal mixture and incense sticks. “I used to embroider Bohra caps that are worn to the mosque. But orders stopped coming. Here I earn between ₹100 and ₹150 every day and can go home for a while to keep an eye on my two children,” says 20-year-old Farzana who works at the unit along with her 42-year-old mother, Afroze.

Tasleema explains that earlier the incense sticks were being supplied to ITC Limited. Jan Sahas now has its own incense brand Avinav.

Seeing opportunity in adversity

Jan Sahas has also made agriculture an occupation for the community and provides technical inputs whenever required. Today 4,000 acres is being developed in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, giving livelihood to about 1,800 families.

But the community had to fight to retain the land, which was given by the government in 2005. Some from the upper caste tried to wrest away the land. “What a war we had to wage for our right to the land. We were 25 women who stuck it out. For five-six years it was a big struggle, with all of us frequently at the police station or at a sit down protest. Today, we grow maize, soyabean, pulses,” says Baddi Bai Rathore of Nimaj district, Rajasthan who was in Dewas for a training session organised by Jan Sahas .

In Madhya Pradesh, a group of liberated scavengers has also managed to lease a talab (pond) from the government for 15 years. The result is a fishery collective in Sehour district's Sidhiganj village, where members are being trained in every aspect of the business.

Despite the successes, more needs to be done. “The aim is to build a platform for representatives of government, UN bodies, public and private sector, social entrepreneurs and civil society for promoting rehabilitation and replicate the pilot in other areas,” explains Shaikh.

As for the acceptance of scavengers in the villages, there are still many shades of grey. In some pockets the discrimination continues. In other villages the dominant castes, up against united Dalits, have accepted the situation.

However, discrimination is less than before, say the women. “Since we left the 'dirty' work, our families are more integrated in the villages and are invited for functions. Our husbands get jobs. Our children are more accepted in the schools. It has been a long battle, no doubt,” says Tasleema.