Tue, Sep 04, 2018 - Page 5 News List

Course helps India’s scavengers find new jobs

The Guardian, NEW DELHI

During Baby’s nine years as a scavenger removing human excrement from dry toilets, no one gave her rubber gloves or protective clothing, as required by law.

Now she is training as a housekeeper and learning how to sweep and mop floors, and understands the importance of wearing rubber gloves, a mask and an apron.

“I hated my work, but I had to do it. There was no choice,” said 49-year-old Baby, her only name. “The contractor never gave me anything to protect me from the stench and filth.”

Timid and reticent, she does not enjoy talking about her work.

Her children are under strict instructions never to reveal it to their teachers or friends lest they are shunned. If landlords hear, the family will not be able to rent a room.

Baby is attending day three of the course, the first of its kind in India, which aims to help 28 scavengers of toilets and sewers find a new life of dignity and self-respect.

In a section of the district magistrate’s complex in Shahdara, east Delhi, a classroom has been readied. An adjoining room has been converted into a mocked-up house with bed, fridge, washing machine, detergents and cleaning paraphernalia, and crockery.

“Start sweeping from the corners towards the center of the room. When you mop, wring the cloth properly. And remember, dusting is done after sweeping and mopping,” trainer Shushma Kherwal said.

Kushal Kumar, a stocky 36-year-old, grabbed the chance to attend the training because he was determined to free his two sons from the destiny that had befallen his father and then him.

More confident than the others, he pulls out the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner from under a shelf and looks at it, confused.

“We will come to that later,” Kherwal tells him.

While Baby cleans the dry latrines of homes — toilets not connected to sewers or water — her husband Ramesh tackles blocked municipal sewers.

When a contractor hires him, Ramesh strips to his underpants and lowers himself into a manhole until he is up to his neck in filth.

He usually downs a quart of cheap, rough whiskey to deaden his senses.

He scoops out the sludge that has blocked the sewer and throws it into a pail that has been lowered with a rope.

Deaths from inhaling poisonous gases are frequent across India, even in the capital, New Delhi.

The Delhi government only recently purchased 200 mechanized machines for unblocking sewers.

For three months the trainees will learn how to become housekeepers so they can work in small hotels, hospitals, restaurants and government offices on salaries ranging from 12,000 rupees (US$169.44) a month to 16,000 rupees, as opposed to the US$3.87 they currently earn on the days they find work as scavengers.

The training is the result of Shahdara District Magistrate Kumar Mahesh’s determination to end manual scavenging.

Unlike other bureaucrats who do not know how many scavengers work in their areas, Mahesh has chosen to be proactive.

He is personally ashamed that this degrading work continues across India 25 years after it was outlawed.

“These men and women occupy the lowest depths of Indian society. I should not be singled out for doing this. It’s my job and my duty,” Mahesh said.

He has urged the trainees to bring any of their children who are over the age of 18 so they can also train to be housekeepers, or learn to use computers.

He freed up two rooms in the building so that the non-governmental organization in charge of the training, the Sadik Masih Medical Social Servant Society, did not have to rent space.

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