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  THOUGH manual scavenging in India is an age-old practice, its origin is not exactly known. It is believed that this practice may have begun during the Moghul period when purdah (veil) system also came into being. Despite globalization, modernization, computerization and other developmental changes, the much-condemned manual scavenging system is still prevailing in many parts of the country. There are thousands of people serving as manual scavengers in various towns and cities of India, including Delhi.

Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International, has been working for the cause of scavengers for about four decades. He has been successful in that. His efforts have led to liberation of many scavengers in this inhuman occupation. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, Dr Pathak is determined to eradicate this social evil from Indian society. I recently visited Alwar where manual scavenging is still in vogue. There are about 10 settlements of the 'Bhangi' community (manual scavengers) in this city. I saw many men, women and young children manually scavenging.

Nai Disha, the Alwar centre of Sulabh International, has taken initiatives to liberate these manual scavengers and rehabilitate them. They have been imparted vocational training at Nai Disha and about fifty-six of them are engaged in production of eatables like vermicelli, pickles and many other items. These products are selling in the local market. Many a time demand for these products overruns supply. Some of the liberated scavengers are also being trained in tailoring. They are also being imparted basic literacy. It was surprising to see some of them greeting, reading and writing in English.

I met one of the ladies in the scavengers' colony. She was living in a very basic accommodation. When I asked her about the works she was engaged in, she said it was their traditional occupation and the only source of their livelihood. They are not able to earn enough to meet their requirements. Living in misery is their destiny.

I talked to a group of four liberated ladies who were working at the centre of Nai Disha. They were looking happy and satisfied with the job they were engaged in. One of them was Vimala Raujiya. I wanted to know about her life before joining Nai Disha. She narrated her story:

"For the first time I came to know about this dingy profession when I came to this city after marriage, as in my parental family this work was not done. I felt quite miserable to think that I would have to perform such work. I could never imagine doing it. My mother-in-law told me if I did not do this job, the family would starve. I started working as a manual scavenger but this was the darkest day of my life.

"Seeing the condition of the family, I compromised with my fate and gradually developed the habit. In the meantime, Babaji (Dr Bindeshwar Pathak) came to our village and he proved to be an incarnation of God. Nobody had ever thought that he would liberate us. But I joined his movement. Now I am happy and thinking I have taken a new birth. I have learnt many things. I am earning much more than what I was earning from my family profession.

"The most important thing which has happened is that my earlier employers, who were not taking care of us in any way and not allowing us to enter houses or touch anything, have now started addressing us with respect. Whenever they meet us in in the market or anywhere on the way, they enquire about our well-being. Then we feel we have also achieved social stats and become members of the mainstream society".

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The article is excerpted with permission from 'New Princesses of Alwar: Shame to Pride -- Startling stories of 'untouchable' scavengers authored by 56 journalists', published by Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, Sulabh Gram, Mahavir Enclave, Palam Dabri Road, New Delhi 110 045, Pages: 294, Price: Rs 500

Photo caption: Dr Bindeshwar Pathak
 
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