Once barred from her gods, she now ‘lights’ their lamps

June 21st, 2011 - 12:14 pm ICT by IANS  

Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh), June 21 (IANS) For nearly three decades Guddi Athwal was not allowed to enter any of the temples in her neighbourhood in Rajasthan because she was an “untouchable” as she worked as a human scavenger.

Now Athwal is a different woman altogether. The priests, who once drove her away from the temple gates, come to her to buy wicks to light the lamps for the deities.

For Athwal, a native of Rajasthan’s Alwar district, life took a dramatic turn when she gave up the manual scavenging job and enrolled herself for a vocational training programme by social organisation Sulabh International.

“I today feel liberated in a real sense. The same men who used to drive me away from the temples approach me whenever they require wicks,” Athwal, in her late 30s, told IANS.

“I am a changed woman now after I stopped the manual scavenging work. Earlier, around six years back, I could not even muster the courage of talking to people belonging to higher castes. Now, as they (priests) realise my importance, I really feel great,” she added.

Athwal is among 700,000 people who were once involved in cleaning toilets but are now living in dignity after being liberated by the Sulabh International initiatives.

Over 200 women from Rajasthan, who earlier worked as manual scavengers and were branded “untouchables”, reached Varanasi Sunday by four flights to take part in a campaign to fight discrimination and social untouchability.

“I remember my day used to start with a broom and bucket…I used to make my way to the upper-caste houses for cleaning their toilets. For us, you can say the job of cleaning toilets was a legacy that was passed from one generation to other,” recalled Athwal.

“At that time I thought I will have to continue with the most degrading work throughout my life. But the efforts made by Sulabh International changed our lives completely,” she added.

When members of Sulabh approached Athwal for her rehabilitation, she did not take them seriously first.

“They approached me with an offer of Rs.1,500 monthly for working with them. At that time, I used to earn only around Rs.300 ,” she said.

“Honestly, I thought they were making me a fool. Still, with a bleak hope of improving my living standards, I accepted their offer. While the elders in my family were dead against my decision, my husband supported me,” Athwal recalled.

She underwent a training programme in wick-making along with stitching and tailoring. After the training, she worked as per the instructions of the organisation.

“Apart from the local temples, the wicks go to several prominent temples of Rajasthan, including Teejara, Tripoli and Jagannath temples,” she claimed.

The orders are placed individually or through the centres run by Sulabh.

“On several occasions, people directly come to me. They offer more price than the fixed price,” Athwal said.

According to an estimate, around 100,000 people in states including Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, work as human scavengers.

Cleaning dry toilets and manually removing human waste is a violation of human rights and dignity. It is a punishable offence.

(Asit Srivastava can be contacted at asit.s@ians.in)

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