By Sarita Brara : As a kid whenever Dolly woke up, she would find that her mother had already left for work . Where did her mother go even before the break of dawn , dolly wondered. Like many other girls in Tonk in Rajasthan that belonged to the family of night soil carriers, Dolly did not go to school. So she would pester her mother to take her along. Her mother would refuse saying it was not a good work. But, when Dolly turned 12 her Grandmother insisted that it was time Dolly started working. Though reluctant, her mother eventually agreed. Dolly was excited that she would be helping her mother earn some extra bucks. The next day Dolly along with her mother left home when it was still dark. Where was her mother taking her? They entered a house from where a nauseating foul smell came and a sea of fleas hovered over human excreta. At first she could not understand why her mother came there. But when she saw her mother collect the excreta in a vessel and then carry it on her head to be thrown at another place, Dolly just stood there, dumbfounded. Covering her face with her hands to avoid breathing in the foul smell, she even felt like vomiting. She could not believe that this is what her mother did to earn a paltry sum of money. Soon it dawned on her that this is what she too was destined to do for she belonged to the family of night soil carriers!
Till just three years back Dolly carried human excreta on her head and cleaned the night soil. But thanks to an NGO things changed. Today she lives the life of dignity and is giving training in tailoring and other vocations to the daughters of some of the very households, she cleaned the night soil for and who treated her as an untouchable. The family invites her to their place often and their daughter has become her friend.
Santosh in Pikachetted village in Dharamshala tehsil in Kangra was just about five year old when she started going with her parents to clean night soil. Although her parents had admitted her in a school, she did this work to help her parents. But later on under a Government scheme, she got training as tailor and also earned a stipend. She took a loan of Rs.20,000, half of which was given as a subsidy and started a training centre. Today she is the President of the Mahila Mandal which is working for the families and dependents of night soil carrier. Santosh says that they have been able to train over 160 such women in the area in stitching, tailoring , embroidery, knitting, weaving and pottery.
There are many success stories like that of Dolly and Santosh but even today the practice of manual cleaning of human excreta continues. This is despite the ban on employment of manual scavengers and construction of dry latrines way back in 1993.
Although the government plans to conduct a fresh survey, there are an estimated over one lakh persons still engaged in this inhuman practice. The Prime Minister while addressing the state ministers of welfare and social justice in June this year set the dead line for ending this inhuman practice within six months. He said that one of the darkest blots on our development process is the fact that even after 64 years of independence, we still have the heinous practice of manual scavenging. Dr Manmohan Singh asked the Ministers to take a pledge to eliminate this scourge from every corner of the country in the next six months.
While it is for the State Governments to ensure this is done within the time frame set by the Prime Minister, the Centre is spending crores of rupees every year to rehabilitate manual scavengers and their dependents through various schemes.
A massive self-employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS) was launched in January in 2007 to provide financial support to them and their dependents for their rehabilitation in alternative occupations. The scheme provides training in various skills for a period up to one year, with payment of stipend at the rate of Rs.1,000 per month.
Loan at concessional rate of interest for self employment projects costing upto Rs. 5 lakh. For projects up to Rs.25000 the rate of interest is four per cent per annum for women beneficiaries and 5 per cent for men .
Capital subsidy at the rate 50 per cent of the project cost, for projects up to Rs.25,000, and at the rate of 25 percent for projects above Rs. 25,000, with a minimum of Rs.12,500 and maximum of Rs.20,000.
Then there is another scheme called Mahila Adhikarita Yojana (MAY)- Loan is provided under this scheme to Women Safai Karamcharis andScavenger women and their dependent daughters upto Rs. 50,000 – per beneficiary.
Term loans are provided for Schemes and Projects upto Rs. 1.00 Lakh. Educational loans up to Rs. 10 lakh for four years are also provided for diploma and degrees after twelfth at the interest rate three and a half per cent for girls and 4 per cent for boys.
But to start with it was the founder of Sulabh International Dr Bindeshwar Pathak who not only brought the issue to the fore almost forty years back but his NGO has been working unrelentlessly to improve the social status of manual scavengers in India. His mission is not limited to providing vocational training or education which of course is of prime importance but to socially upgrade them. Santosh says that though today she along with many others have been liberated from the obnoxious practice of manually handling human excreta, the prejudices remain. She and her community still face discrimination and not treated as part of the main stream society. Dr Pathak knew that liberation from manual scavenging, training and education was not enough and their children will have to have upgraded status in society, to be at par with the so-called upper caste people. So his NGO started a social up gradation campaign. Under this, a family with high status in society would “socially adopt” a scavenger family and treat them like family members. The association with these high-status people would help raise the status of the scavengers. So far, 5,000 scavenger families have been “adopted” by families with high status including those of judges, advocates, journalists, politians and planners.
The issue does not end with families engaged in handling human excreta .It is also the issue of discrimination against a community. Even today in many villages separate hamlets defined on the basis of caste exist, though not in the scale and degree it used to be. Discrimination on the basis of caste has to end for every one to live life with dignity.