Former scavengers making vermicelli

Report By
Marie Naudascher
In the wee hours, Baby, a 30 years old scavenging women from Alwar begins her walk through the latrines of the city. She is in charge of a dozen of houses. She has to snake in and out the small path made for scavengers between houses to clean night soil. ‘Night soil’ is an understatement for the smelly excreta Baby has to scour everyday. She has been doing this obnoxious and demeaning drudgery for a mere monthly wage of Rs 500.

With bare hands, she sweeps the dejections and carries them in a bucket on her head. Of course, she has never got used to the stench of human excreta and hates this menial job. Very often, she fells sick. “The stench forces scavengers to hold their breath, so they get affected with respiratory problem and coughs later on”, explains Santosh, from Sulabh International.

Like Baby, there are about 340, 000 million toilet cleaners working in Indian villages, report the union social welfare department. The figure could be up to one million, according to the activists. The sanitary condition in the country is appalling. More than 500 million people have no access to toilets that is to say one out of two Indians. Around 700 million people defecate in open air, says Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of Sulabh Inernational. As a result the soil is polluted and around 500,000 children die every year due to diarrhoea and dehydration. This lack of hygiene also results in a tremendous inequity between men and women. The latter have to go far from their house, often when it is dark to relieve themselves far from men’s view.

Most of the scavengers are Dalits, they belong to the lower cast, the Banghis, and 80 per cent of them are women. Though manual scavenging was banned in 1993, the country’s toilet system still relies on scavenging. The Indian constitution made the term ‘Untouchable’ illegal in 1950, but scavenging is still their fate.

NGO Sulabh International has been working for more than thirty years to eradicate scavenging. Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, a visionary Gandhian, could not stand the fate of scavengers. He decided to dedicate his whole life to this cause.

In Alwar, a Sulabh vocational training centre named ‘Nai Disha’ gathers former female scavengers. A few years ago, they were compelled to clean night soil. Today, they proudly speak for themselves. They also get training for alternative jobs. They learn how to make vermicelli. They are proud because they know people will buy and enjoy what they are preparing. On the packaging, there is no such word as ‘scavenger’, of course. It only says “made and prepared by women groups working for their emancipation”. They are also making candles for a temple, where they were once banned from entering. They learn stitching and sewing. There are English classes also

For Dr Pathak, it is very important to show the world that these women do not deserve to be treated as the scum of society. In July 2008, thirty former scavenger women took part in a fashion show for the International Year of sanitation at the United Nation in New York.
They had been stitching clothes for international models and they walked down the ramp with them as more than 150 officials from different countries applauded. Lalita, a former scavenger recalls this experience with gleaming eyes, “We never even dreamt that something of that magnitude would happen to us. We had never even seen Delhi. We enjoyed the attention given to us”.

Thirty years ago, the first task for Dr Pathak was to create toilets that would not need scavenging. He did create a two pit system toilets. Then, he had to convince people that these toilets were cleaner for the household. He went door to door to meet and discuss with people. As a sociologist, Dr Pathak studies people’s habit concerning toilet and hygiene in order to change their mindsets.

Today, Sulabh International is among the few successful organisations that were able to make a difference. But the team remains very humble. The only thing they boast about is to have transformed former waste collectors into independent, proud and free “turquoise ladies”.