Moradabad (Uttar Pradesh): Sixty-one year old Kamla was reborn two years ago. Condemned to a life of drudgery and indignity for nearly half a century, this manual scavenger had been carrying human excreta from the young age of eight. She bid good bye to that miserable stage of life only two years ago. Today she is happy and wishes to forget her “filthy past”.
Hailing from the Balmiki caste, untouchables like Kamla have for centuries been ostracized by even the other “low caste” Dalits and Scheduled Castes. No wonder that she had reconciled to her fate when a revolution overtook her village, Akka Delari. Just 15 km from Moradabad city, the village became one of the chosen 40 in Uttar Pradesh to receive the President’s Nirmal Gram Award for total rural sanitation, including zero open defection. Under the scheme all the 800 odd village dwellings, including that of Kamla, acquired a flush toilet.
But overnight Kamla also turned jobless. The only alternative before illiterate Kamla was to become a labourer. But two years down the line, the initial anxiety is over. Her life has started on a new note all together. She is happy and free from what Mahatma Gandhi termed as the “hateful, inhuman, unhealthy practice” of manual scavenging.
“I removed human excreta manually with the help of a plate and a broom. I scrapped it onto the flat cane basket and then carried it off for disposal. If it was light I balanced the palla (vessel) on my hips, if heavy I carried it on the head. My mother preferred carrying a tin bucket,” is how Kamla describes her work at the village households who could afford the luxury of dry latrines. The others just used the fields.
“For all the indignities I suffered I was given leftover food plus 20 kgs of grain per month. This ensured one square meal a day for my family. During weddings and festivals I got an ‘additional tip’ or a new sari,” tells Kamla.
A big padlock hangs on the hutment adjacent to hers. Ramvati, who lives next door, is away to work. Envy of the women of her community, she just got work last month as a cleaner at the private Raj Kiran Inter College at a salary of Rs 700 per month.
We are escorted to the school by Ramvati and her entire clan. Ramvati appears to have suddenly acquired a new name and identity.
“These kids call me aunty-ji,” she says, not even trying to hide the pride in her eyes.
The last few years have been heavy on her. She had practically no work in the village and there were six kids to feed. She was forced to resort to manual scavenging.
“I would not like to re-born as a Balmiki. I have hated each moment of my existence. Relieved of this stench, now I feel light. I have carried the weight of human excreta on my consciousness long enough,” is how she describes her past.
“Who likes carrying other peoples’ filth? I hope our future generations are not cursed like us,” she adds.
But Kamla and Ramvati are just two fortunate individuals in a state which according to Union Ministry for Social Justice (2005 data), has 149,000 manual scavengers - the largest number in the country. This, when scavenging has been banned in the country since the past 13 years.