Indian women scavengers to visit United Nations

April 25th, 2008 - 11:21 am ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Bahujan Samaj Party
By Brij Khandelwal
Agra, April 25 (IANS) Usha Chomar is among two dozen women scavengers from India who have battled social odds, stepped out of their traditional vocation - manually carrying human waste - and are now getting ready to visit the United Nations. Chomar, a resident of Alwar in Rajasthan, will be taken to the UN General Assembly in the first week of July. A book on the success stories of these women will be released there before ministers and officials from 150 countries.

Born in Deeg in Bharatpur district, 50 km from Agra, Chomar’s life in a way exemplifies the change that is sweeping through the countryside. She speaks in Hindi interspersed with a few words of English and this linguistic mix is an evidence of a paradigm shift in her life.

Chomar, who began scavenging at the age of seven, told IANS during a visit to Alwar: “While working as manual scavengers, our life was full of indignities and humiliations. We were treated as sub-humans and untouchables and we suffered all kinds of restrictions and exclusions.”

“When I was a little child I would often insist on taking a broom from my mother so I could do the scavenging. The disposal of human excreta was the only thought that dominated my mind.”

Her life changed for the better when Bindeshwar Pathak, the head of sanitation specialists Sulabh International, visited her colony in Alwar some five years ago.

“He asked us whether we would give up scavenging if he gave us alternative work. We said we would. This is when our transformation happened. We felt overwhelmed. We were liberated from this abominable profession.

“We could not afford to let go of this opportunity. This was a defining moment in our life. Baba (Pathak) established Nai Disha, a branch of Sulabh International, in Alwar which became the centre for the production of pickles, noodles and other eatables,” she said.

As the eatables produced by us at Nai Disha have begun selling in the market, it has become a guarantee for our stable long-term employment.

“Quite a few of us are working here and eking out our livelihood. Our affiliation to Nai Disha has given us not only a modicum of economic independence but also human dignity. Now people address me as madam and they have no objection to eating things made by me. I have ceased to be an untouchable.”

Scavengers in Uttar Pradesh are also happy with Chief Minister Mayawati’s move to appoint one safai karamchari (sweeper) in every village of the state, effectively employing them officially. Mayawati is chief of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) that has traditionally espoused the cause of socially marginalized people.

The state government has created 108,848 posts of safai karamcharis in the grade of Rs.2,550-3,200 per month. They will work under the village panchayat.

The move has been hailed by the scavenging community, which has been subjected to social inequalities and forced to do the “dirtiest work”.

In the Balmiki basti (colony) of Peer Kalyani across the railway line of Agra city station, prosperity is apparent. Over a dozen safai karamcharis own motorcycles.

“One member is running a taxi while two have auto-rickshaws. The huts have disappeared and now you have concrete paths leading to cooler- fitted government quarters,” said Netra Pal Singh, a social activist.

Says Municipal Commissioner Shyam Singh Yadav: “I have made sure that they get their dues, uniforms, equipment and all the basic necessities. After all they are doing such important work for the community. Without them life would not be liveable in urban areas.”

However, some are sceptical of the government decision. “If so many people are suddenly absorbed in the countryside, there could be an acute shortage of scavengers in urban areas which are already facing manpower shortage in the upcoming malls, commercial complexes and multi-storeyed structures,” says safai karamchari leader Dinesh Balmiki.

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