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From Manual Scavenging To Padma Shri: Usha Chaumar’s Life Is An Example Of A Resolute Fight For Dignity

  • IWB Post
  •  November 17, 2020

“Paise to sab kamate hain, lekin izzat aur samman to zaroor milna chahiye’ (Everyone earns money, but respect and dignity are a must), says Usha Chaumar.

The President of the Sulabh, International Social Service Organization as well as a Padma Shri awardee this year, Usha’s life is nothing about gloss or glamour. It is also not so much about a life trying to constantly beat the odds. It is in fact, a story of self-realization and the discovery of finding happiness, dignity, and health. It is a journey of evolving from someone who followed the ‘parampara’ (culture) of years to someone who acknowledged the voice of change until she became one herself.

The times of manual scavenging

Usha Chaumar is an inspiration because she turned her life 360 degrees around after starting out as a manual scavenger. Introduced to manual scavenging at the age of 7, Usha just assumed that this was her way of life. “This was our tradition, women and girls were doing it for generations,” says Usha. And though she admits that, “Bahut bura lagta tha (It felt really bad),” she never thought she could do anything about it.

And so, in spite of her employers treating her as an untouchable and her health being compromised, Usha continued to remain a manual scavenger even after marriage. She along with the women of her community continued to set out each morning for a mere Rs. 230 to do the unimaginable, unthinkable, and inhumane task.

It was not even when she along with other women were stopped in their tracks by Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak one day that the idea of exploring an alternate and better life occurred to her. She says, “Besides our husbands, we didn’t interact with other men.” So when Dr. Pathak requested them to just listen to him, they couldn’t find the courage, neither the need to communicate. But finally, due to his persistence and presence, they agreed to hear him out.

The pertinent question

Dr. Pathak began with the simplest of questions, “Why do you do this kind of work?” leaving Usha and the others flummoxed because this was the very first time someone had asked them so. Yet, through this one question, something stirred within Usha. For the first time, she began questioning the very essence of the tradition that she and her community women carried as an obvious and inherent adage.

In many ways, the journey of change began from here onwards. Usha who has immense respect for Dr. Pathak explains how he came to their ‘basti’ and spoke to them about an alternate occupational choice. The women were initially skeptical because they didn’t know and were not trained in any other skill or job. But the words and mannerism of Dr. Pathak opened up, albeit just a crack, of a shut and shunned hope that in small measures was beginning to light up the dark corners of their existence.

The bright beginnings

Dr. Pathak invited Usha and the others to come to Sulabh’s office in Delhi. When Usha asked her mother–in–law she advised her to not pay any heed and continue with her life. What if Usha went to Delhi and nothing came of it? What would she do then without her daily work? But surprisingly it was Usha’s husband who stood in her support and let her go, if for no other reason, to at least see a new city.

“I went to Delhi for the first time. And for the first time, we were welcomed well. We were made to wear garlands and were given so much respect,” says Usha. Their visit to Sulabh exposed them to a whole range of skills, such as sewing, stitching, pickle making, etc. And finally, the women believed that they could give up on manual scavenging and live a life of dignity. But there was one question that bothered them, “We told Sir, we will make the products, but who would buy from us? There was so much discrimination in our society back home in Alwar, Rajasthan!”

Usha Chaumar

The winds of change

But slowly there was a visible change. A step at a time and change did follow. So much so that now Usha says, “We go to the main temple here and the panditji invites us for occasions. Even the homes we used to work in buy our products now and invite us to their family functions. We invite them too and we are no longer treated as unequal or untouchables.”

Usha credits Sulabh and Dr. Pathak’s tireless efforts. The organization and Dr. Pathak spoke to the people and campaigned for the removal of discrimination. Besides, the team built toilets in the village eliminating the need for manual scavenging. In fact, Sulabh has built 1.5 million household toilets across the nation and managed to convert dry latrines into two-pit pour-flush latrines in more than 1700 towns. There are many accomplishments of Sulabh in the space of sanitation, hygiene, and education. It has undoubtedly changed the lives of millions guiding them to a healthier, safer, and empowering environment. And, yet in the process of bettering so many lives, it did not fail to overlook the individual self. Usha Chaumar is an example of how a little push can bring out the best in people and can drive them in turn to be a force that brings about more positive change.

Usha – Confident and Constructive

Usha Chaumar, who ate leftover meals and wore handed down clothes of her upper-caste employers, today has toured the world, speaking and motivating hundreds about the cause of manual scavenging. She confidently says that she has no qualms addressing crowds, whether they are 1000, 2000, or even 10,000 who gather to listen to her. We ask her if she doesn’t feel nervous speaking on stage to so many people but her heartfelt answer wins our hearts, “Initially I was a bit nervous. But why should I be? I am not saying anything wrong. We are right in our place, thoughts, and actions. We are speaking up for our own dignity and rights.”

And the personal empowerment is not only seen in her mental and emotional sense of self, but also in her physical health. “I was very weak”, says Usha, “Because of my work I always had a fever, felt dizzy, and had stomachaches. But now even a fever takes quite a while to come”.

Is there still anybody involved in manual scavenging? Usha quickly replies that in her town and even state there is no one involved in manual scavenging. She herself left manual scavenging in 2003 and by 2009 there was no one practicing it. If she hears of someone still involved in it, she approaches them immediately explaining to them to leave it right away. And she urges people, who may know of anyone still involved in this occupation, to help them live a life of dignity and respect.

And in a span of a few years, Usha has traveled the world, met various people, and has also been awarded the Padma Shri. But the fame and attention have not changed her humble demeanor, where she admits, “I didn’t know anything. Dr. Pathak has taught us everything.” Also, she goes on to say, that the Padma Shri was an honor befitting her Sir who graciously made her capable of it. Usha’s contentment with her life exudes in her voice, in her honest conversation, and in her confidence that comes with a sense of gratitude and self-awareness.

A message

As we wrapped up our conversation, we asked her what message she would like to give women who wanted to break-free and charter their own path, defying tradition, and societal pressures. And here is what she said, “Women should come out of their homes. It isn’t that only men can do certain jobs and women cannot. It is not that women have to be confined to housework alone. Also, girls should be encouraged to study. I wish for not just my community, but girls and women everywhere to move ahead and put their heart in whatever they do.”

Finally, Dr. Pathak and Usha Chaumar are ardent believers of Gandhiji’s philosophy. There is perhaps no better way to conclude than by quoting the Mahatma himself, ‘The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems.”

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