Sunita Nanda, 33, from Alwar, Rajasthan, is just back from the Big Apple. She had a terrific time there. While in New York, Nanda sashayed down the ramp with leading supermodels and also attended a series of events held at the United Nations headquarters, marking the International Year of Sanitation.
Her children are delighted as they listen to their mother describe the interiors of the plush UN Millennium Plaza Hotel - where heads of states and leading diplomats and, more recently, Nanda stayed.
But that's where the similitude between world leaders and Nanda, as well as the 36 other women from Alwar, who were invited by the Prince of Orange of the Netherlands, ends.
Five years ago, Nanda earned a living cleaning dry latrines and disposing off night soil by carrying it in containers balanced on her head. She had married into a family of manual scavengers and was quickly initiated into the "family business" by her mother-in-law. She abhorred the work but since it was the only source of income, acquiesced to it. Between the two women, the family earned a paltry monthly income of Rs 400 (US$1=Rs 42.4).
But all that changed in 2003 when Dr Bindeshwar Pathak of the Sulabh International Social Service Organization met up with the women manual scavengers of Alwar district and resolved to liberate and mainstream them.
Through his NGO, Pathak set up a centre called Nai Dishayein (New Directions) where women are trained in vocations such as food processing, tailoring, embroidery and beauty treatments. The first batch in 2003 saw 28 women eagerly learning the new skills. The next batch saw the numbers double.
The women work at the centre from 10.30 am to 4 pm and earn a monthly stipend of Rs 2,000. Their food products, candles and other items are purchased by hotels and restaurants in Delhi and in the national capital region (NCR). "For a year, we couldn't sell anything that we produced because people said they were made by the 'untouchable' scavengers," says Santosh Singh, who manages the centre.
But things are looking up says a beaming Usha Chaumar, 33, who explains, "We make pickles, vermicelli and 'papad' (spicy savories) at home, too, which gets us an additional income of around Rs 2,000 per month."
"Initially, we didn't believe Dr Pathak. We couldn't believe anyone could liberate us from this age-old practice. But a few months after his Alwar visit, he invited us to Delhi for the World Toilet Summit and put us up at the five-star Maurya Sheraton hotel. The organization also gave us Rs 200 as travelling allowance. When we returned to Alwar, we were sure our life was going to change forever," recalls Nanda.
Shakuntala, 35, another former scavenger, says, "Most of us are now literate. Some of us can even speak a few words of English. We now send our children to English medium schools. Earlier, we didn't have any say in such affairs. The family decided where our children would go for their schooling. The centre has given us dreams and we want to realize them."
Besides rehabilitation, the NGO works towards helping then gain social acceptance, too. The recent trip to New York is the result of such efforts. Earlier in the year, the women had participated in a fashion show organized by the NGO at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi. They had walked down the ramp with leading Indian models like Marc Robinson, Indrani Dasgupta and Tapur Chatterjee, in apparel designed by them under the six-month-long guidance of designer Abdul Haldar.
The show was attended by the Prince of Orange of the Netherlands, who then invited them to the UN this year. The trip was sponsored by Sulabh International in association with the Irene Network, a UN voluntary organization and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA).
"We could never ever dream that such a thing could happen to us. What happened in New York was much beyond our dreams," says Chaumar, who addressed the international community from the podium of the United Nations. There she spoke about her days as a manual scavenger, about how Sulabh International helped her do away with the humiliating job, and of her being the sole breadwinner of her family. Among her audience were leading diplomats and top UN officials. Later, Chaumar was unofficially crowned as princess of sanitation workers.
Talking about their visit to the Big Apple, the women say they loved the big-city experience - they were most impressed with the skyscrapers and enjoyed their trip to the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island in the New York Harbor and the Battery Park in lower Manhattan. And what were their observations of the women of the metropolis? Though they were inspired by the working women in the city, the former scavengers were not too impressed with their clothes. "Less clothes and more exposed bodies. Our men would never let us wear such clothes and step out to work," says Shakuntala.
Of course, Nanda, Chaumar and the other foreign-returned women are the fortunate few in a state, which has the second highest number of female manual scavengers, after Delhi. This, despite the fact that Rajasthan had adopted the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. According to Pathak, the reason for the prevalence of the practice is the failure of the state to appoint an executive authority to prosecute violators of the Act. According to central government estimates, there are 342,000 persons engaged in manual scavenging in India. Voluntary organisations believe the actual numbers are at least four times this figure.
In Alwar alone, there are about 100 female scavengers, while Bharatpur tops the list with 600 as per figures sourced by the NGO from the state government. However, impressed by the results of the Nai Dishayein initiative, the Rajasthan government is now ready to provide financial assistance to Sulabh International to replicate the Alwar model in Tonk, another district of the state, where out of 225 scavengers, 190 are women.