From Manual Scavenger To Padma Shri Recipient- The Inspiring Tale of Usha Chaumar!

Usha Chaumar worked as a manual scavenger since childhood, cleaning dirty latrines & picking up faeces.Today, the Padma Shri winner is President of Sulabh International NGO & travels the world advocating her cause.

Hailing from Alwar in the state of Rajasthan, Usha Chaumar  worked as a manual scavenger since childhood. She used to accompany her mother to work, who was a manual scavenger herself. Cleaning dirty latrines and picking up human faeces with her bare hands was her daily job. Her mother often told her that this is her life and she would have to do the same work even after her marriage. She was told to stay grounded in reality and not have unrealistic dreams.

No one dreams of doing such a job, no one wants to pick up human excreta every day, but that was her life. She remembers going to people’s homes to clean and carry their waste. Ironically, the people who clean waste are also treated as waste in India. They are side-lined by society and are termed as untouchables. This is their life and they have to make peace with it; dare they dream of a different life! Dreaming is not a privilege everyone has!

When she was only 7, Usha Chaumar was taught by her mother that they were untouchables

Usha Chaumar remembers her childhood. When she was only 7, she was taught by her mother that they were untouchables. She was shunned by people and no one wanted to touch her. Her family was prohibited from entering houses and temples; they were not allowed to buy groceries from the market as well.

The job made her feel so dirty that she rarely had an appetite for a meal once she returned home after her scavenging job. As time progressed and she had children; she often dreamt of sending them to school and giving them an education. However she was denied that as well. She couldn’t send her kids to school as there were people of a higher caste in school who objected.

Becoming a part of the Nai Disha NGO turned tables for her

In the year 2003, she finally was able to leave the work of manual scavenging. She credits Dr Bindeshwar Pathak-founder of Sulabh International for the same. She was just waiting for an opportunity to come her way and when ‘Nai Disha NGO’ gave her one, she grabbed it with both hands. She could finally begin her journey of living a respectable life of dignity. ‘Nai Disha’ helped her to learn various skills like making papads, noodles, heena processing, stitching, making clothes, bags and beauty parlour services.

Manual scavenging for the whole month just paid her Rs 200 -300. They lived on the leftover food provided by the families they worked for and the used clothes that they got once in a while. When Dr Pathak approached her and asked her to come to Delhi to begin a new life, her mother-in-law was completely against it however her husband supported her. He told her if nothing she’ll at least get to visit Delhi once in her life.

The very first thing that was taught to them was cleanliness and hygiene. They were taught to begin their day with a bath, wash their hair and dress well. They were also taught reading, writing and basic mannerisms of how to behave in public.

She has travelled to countries like the USA, South Africa & Paris  advocating her cause

The same people who used to shun her and treat her as an untouchable were now buying products from her and calling her to their homes to provide beauty services. Some of them now invite her to weddings and family functions in their family as well.

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She soon started raising her voice against the horrible practice of manual scavenging and inspired many other women like her. She has travelled to countries across the globe like the USA, South Africa and Paris and has addressed huge gatherings advocating her cause. She dreams of a day when manual scavenging will be completely eliminated.

She is now the president of the same organization. It was Dr Pathak’s dream that the president should be someone who comes from the ignored section of society and she was collectively chosen by almost every woman.

Despite being prohibited by law, manual scavenging is prevalent in India

There are so many people who still spend their lives manual scavenging and there are many who lose their lives to it. It is to be noted that manual scavenging is banned in India but it is still prevalent in the interiors of our country.

This is a caste-based practice and it is mostly the people from the Dalit community who are employed.

Initiatives to provide toilets in every household in the country to avoid open defecation has helped a lot. Other than that there are many NGOs like Sulabh International that works tirelessly to solve the problem by educating and training people for an alternate occupation.

No one dreams does this out of choice. These are people who have no option and they live a life of hell. Their children have no choice either and they pay the price of being born in that family. Do they deserve this life? Are we any better than them? Would you and I do this job?

We all know the answers to these questions. Let us all work together to stop this dehumanizing practice.

Usha Chaumar wants to make sure that no one ever does the work of manual scavenging. She is an inspiration to so many women and she personifies grit, dedication and resilience. Can I also add in a word for Dr Pathak – a human being we should all aspire to be. A man who changed so many lives and gave so many people a reason to live not just exist!

These are the heroes we deserve. This is the inspiration we need in life!

Congratulations Padma Shri Smt. Usha Chaumar

Image source: Stills from YouTube videos


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