India Interior

Freed from an inhuman practice

Sarita Brara | Updated on November 02, 2019

No more carrying night soil on the head. Nai Disha uplifts women through training in livelihood skills

Born in a city like Delhi, Bhagwati never had to manually clean dry latrines before her marriage. After she got married and went to live with her in-laws at Alwar, she found to her horror that she would have to do what her mother-in-law did — carry night soil on her head after collecting it from residential colonies.

“I would cry when I was asked to carry human excreta on my head and tried my best to avoid doing it,” she recalls. Bhagwati did manage to not get involved in this inhuman practice for two to three years but ultimately had to give in. It was only in 2003 that Bindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh International fame freed her and many others from carrying night soil on their head.

“Would you leave this work if you get more than the money you earn every month?” That was the question Pathak asked as Usha and others were carrying night soil to the dumping ground.

Usha says that initially she and other women doubted the intentions of this man they could not see as they were in purdah. “Why don’t you come to our basti if you are so keen to help us?” one of them said.

He met them at the Hajoori Gate Basti they lived in and talked about how, along with a stipend every month, they would also get training in some skill to earn money on their own.

Bhagwati, Usha and 26 others joined Nai Disha, a centre where they were offered a monthly stipend and provided training in different livelihood skills. That was the first batch. Today, Nai Disha is abuzz with activities ranging from making papads, pickles, snacks, including sevaiyan, to stitching bags, embroidery and motifs on saris, tailoring women’s suits and beauty care.

For Bhagwati, it was a moment that transformed her life. “It was like a rebirth for most of us,” she says. “I am really happy that that horrible period of our life is gone, when women like me were exploited for years in the name of pratha, a tradition of carrying night soil in containers on our heads.”

Making needle-thin sevaiyan from the kneaded flour with their fingers, they sing songs of their liberation, and also their liberator, penned by Bhagwati, who is a great-grandmother now.

Usha started carrying human excreta when she was just seven. Today, she enjoys the status of being the President of Sulabh International Social Service Organisation and champions the cause of sanitation, women empowerment and equality. “It has been a journey from suffering humiliation to a life of dignity.”

For women who had worked all their lives as manual scavengers, adjusting to an altogether different life was difficult initially, says Kusum who took charge of the centre from the start.

A variety of skills

It was necessary to train the women in cleanliness and give them some basic education as well since many of them had never been to school. The centre started with training in tailoring and then added several other skills. It also helps market the products made at the centre, including eatables.

Women are paid a stipend of ₹3,500 a month. In addition, they are paid according to the work they do at the centre. Mamta is able to earn ₹3,000-4,000 besides the stipend. At present, 70 women work at the centre. Those with the beauty parlour earn more.

To mainstream these women, Pathak has provided them exposure to the outside world. These women have travelled abroad, visited five-star hotels and walked the ramp,

Usha has even addressed the UN and World Water Forum in Marseilles. Bhagwati too has been abroad. Nearly 10,000 scavenger families have been adopted by well-known personalities. All these initiatives are meant to give the women confidence in their skills and abilities and give them a life of dignity. Many of those trained at Nai Disha have started their own businesses.

They have organised themselves into self-help groups and are thus able to avail credit facilities from banks. Women living in the neighbourhood of Nai Disha in Alwar come to the centre to get their clothes stitched or for facials, threading, hair styling or bridal make-up. Manjit Kaur from the neighbourhood, who gets her clothes tailored at the centre, says she comes here often for facials.

“I know the kind of work they were doing before joining the centre. That does not deter me from coming here. They are better off than many of us and are involved in work that is clean and honest.”

There has been a change in the behaviour of even the families who employed them as manual scavengers. “Time was when they would not even touch us. Today they call us to their homes or come to the centre, be it to buy our snacks, for tailoring, or for their other needs,” says Usha. Six hundred and forty towns, including Alwar, have been made scavenging-free by Sulabh International Social Service Organisation. However, despite the ban on manual scavenging, over 50,000 people are involved in this inhuman practice even today.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi

Published on November 02, 2019

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