The writer narrates the story of women who continue to be manual scavengers because they know nothing else.

On January 26, 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics, we will have equality and, in social and economic life, we will have inequality.

- Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

We are 65 plus as an independent nation. International Women’s Day has been held since 1975. Yet the contradictions still remain. In small towns, villages and even cities there exist spaces where faceless citizens feel an acute sense of alienation and discrimination.

Meet Babita, 21, a manual scavenger who has not been able to give up the worst possible occupation in India despite a government ban. Living in the Balmiki hamlet in Rajasthan’s Bharatpur town, she still does the round of 10 to 15 latrines manually picking up the shit with a broom and spade because “her mother and father-in-law expect her to.” There is no other alternative, this is our parampara, what else can she do, asks her father-in-law. Her mother-in-law says, “She has five children; the first four are girls. How will she secure their future?” They silently resent our entry into their home with a group of liberated scavengers who have not only given up the practice but have become strong advocates for putting an end to such indignity.

Babita is not the only one caught in this bind. Many others still continue to scavenge. Though the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment’s official figures vary over the years, it is estimated that today 3.5 lakh people are employed in scavenging work, with 98 per cent being women. Among those in this hamlet are 50-year-old Bhura Devi and her daughter-in-law Meena. They point out that those who have left manual scavenging in their area are sitting at home, struggling to earn a living through other means despite undergoing government training for rehabilitation.

Sona Devi, Rajni Devi and Munni Devi who have come to meet us and attend a meeting of the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan (RGA) nod in unison. They attended a three-month government-sponsored training course in tailoring and were promised sewing machines, cash subsidy and a loan under the Self-Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS) to start their own enterprise. Though they have filled in the forms, they are still waiting to receive the benefits. It is the same old story of confused identities and indifferent implementation.

“We would go every day for training. There was one woman and six machines to teach 70 of us. Most days the teacher would not turn up or the machines would be out of order. We would take cloth, scissors, thread and a sewing kit from home. We were taught only how to make a blouse. We hope we will remember how to stitch if and when we receive the machine,” says Munni Devi. Sona Devi relates how her mother-in-law Santa Bai was left mentally unstable due to years of manual scavenging and now has to be locked up at home. “I asked Sona to leave the drudgery, though I was not sure if rehabilitation benefits will come our way,” says Ramu, her husband.

Ashif Shaikh, of Jan Sahas Social Development Society, has been spearheading the RGA movement since 2002. “That’s the trouble with SRMS,” he says. “It has a subsidy and a loan component and the one who reaps the benefit is mostly the middle agent. Though a majority of beneficiaries are women, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, passed six months ago remains gender blind.” It is not just a question of livelihood, but one of slavery, says Sanjay Dumane, national co-ordinator, RGA, quoting their central slogan.

For Ashif, it has been a long journey. Along the way the RGA has gathered a brave band of former women scavengers who are giving the movement its momentum and the community much-needed leadership. “When I joined the RGA in 2002, my in-laws sent me back to my parents’ home. It was an unthinkable action and the Thakurs of the village threatened to throw us all out of our homes,” recalls Chottibai from Dhariaya Khedi village in Madhya Pradesh. Today, Chottibai along with Lad Kunwar, Badami Bai, Laali Bai and many others travel across the country imploring manual scavengers to burn their baskets and restore their dignity. Their best-known effort was the 10,000-km march across 18 States and 200 districts in 2012.

Despite this Herculean community effort, the social evil still continues. Though many States deny the existence of manual scavengers, the 2011 census showed that there are still 7,94,390 dry latrines where human excreta is picked up manually. Of these, 73 per cent are in rural areas and 27 per cent in urban settlements. In another 13,14,652 toilets, human excreta is flushed in open drains. In all, there are more than 26 lakh dry latrines where manual scavenging is still prevalent. And who cleans this mess? Women, who are marginalised thrice over: due to their gender, caste and work.

On the ground SRMS, which was meant to give manual scavengers a fresh start, hasn’t helped despite over Rs. 700 crores in budget allocations over the years. The RGA and Janhas’ report on rehabilitation cites case after case where the real beneficiaries have been duped. In some cases the recipients are non scavengers or minors, and worse still loans have been given for unviable enterprises. “The fruits are not reaching the people,” says Wilson Bezwada, convenor, Safai Karamchari Andolan, who has waged a battle to end manual scavenging for 32 years.

Meanwhile, it is an inhuman daily struggle for the manual scavengers who are afraid to burn their baskets in the face of an impotent rehabilitation scheme. Babita, Bhura devi, Meena and many others stand testimony to this reality.

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