The inhumane and degrading profession of “manual scavenging” is still a reality for many Indians. India Fellow Aishwarya talks about how one such manual scavenger decided to quit the profession for a better life, and inspire others in the process.
An important national holiday for some of us living in this part of the world, 26th January, 2002 was an ordinary day for millions across the globe. But for 32 women living in a small unheard-of village, Bhaurasa, in Madhya Pradesh, it was a day of triumph, which they relive even today with a smile. Such is the thing about the past—it’s a wonderful place to visit, once you’ve already dealt with it.
On this 26th day of January, 32 women, together and at once, left the inhuman, derogatory, and filthy work of “manual scavenging”, by burning the bamboo baskets—which they carried human excreta in—as a symbol of getting rid of their past profession and life. On that day, Chaman Bi, and 31 other women, truly got their freedom.
This is the story of Chaman Bi, who is now the centre supervisor of a cloth production unit called Nayi Disha in Dewas, Madhya Pradesh. Her day is tough, as she has to manage the stitching centre, which has 20 women, along with performing the household chores for her huge family. Nevertheless, she is happy, and is always seen wearing her trademark smile. This was not the case a few years ago, when she moved to Bhaurasa after her marriage.
On her first day in her new house, her mother-in-law gave her the work of manual scavenging and said, “This is our main livelihood. When I got married and came here, my mother-in-law passed it on to me, our legacy, which now I hand-over to you.” She even went on to say, “This is our responsibility for society.”
Considering this as something passed down to her by her in-laws, Chaman Bi started doing this work regularly.
Chaman Bi worked as a manual scavenger for 60 households, because she belonged to the Hela community, a Dalit Muslim community. Her day began with waking up at 4 AM, carrying a simple pan and a bamboo basket, and going to each of the 60 households and manually cleaning their dry latrines.
Every time her basket was full, she had to go to the periphery of the village, where she lived, and empty the basket, only to fill it again. How much ever she hurried, even though it dripped the faeces on her hair, face, and hands, she managed to reach home only by 11 am. Hence, she couldn’t get her children ready for school.
In return for this, she got food—a few stale roots. She also faced constant abuse and caste-based name calling. She had no friends, people refused to talk to her, or even sit beside her. When she was nearby, people would move away and cover their noses saying, “Baas aata hai” (“You stink”). She bathed thrice a day to get rid of the stench. It didn’t help. There were days when she couldn’t even eat. Being tired from the cleaning, carrying, and the household work, she would just lie down. This was her life.
Women in many pockets across India are, even today, involved in the work of manual scavenging, which, apart from being extremely unhygienic, snatches away the most important aspect of being human—one’s basic dignity.
Stepping out from a system that condemns a human for the sin of being born in a particular community, and that insists that one stays in it, is the most difficult part.
When the Garima Abhiyan volunteers went to Bi’s village and told her about the Government’s Act of 1993 (Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrine Prohibition), and told her that she could leave this work for a better life for her and her children, she heard about it for the first time. At first, Bi was hesitant, as she has been told this was her only option, but after some time, she made her up her mind to break out of this practice.
After that, she started learning and tailoring. She, along with other women, were provided tailoring training, as freed manual scavengers, by Jan Sahas, an NGO working in this space. When she participated in this training, she performed well and became a powerful leader in the Garima Abhiyan.
After that, she was selected by a manufacturing initiative called Dignity and Designs to become their production centre in-charge.
Today, Chaman Bi sleeps every night not wondering what she did wrong to deserve this fate, but with dreams of making her production centre one of the best in the world. She and her family are very happy, and she is working with honesty. She keeps all the records of her centre, and teaches 15 women freed from manual scavenger work.
Chaman Bi has made many types of apparel, home furnishing, stationery, mobile accessories, bags, pouches, etc., and is trying to create new designs. She is an inspiration to us, and another 20 women, for whom she sets an example by leading.
(The author is an India Fellow who works with the Dignity and Design project with Jan Sahas in Madhya Pradesh. She helps the team with the strengthening of the enterprise and marketing of products.)