Sanitation has seen a significant push in India through Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat Mision, though mainly on the demand side. The push has yet to fully benefit sanitation workers, challenged by historical stereoptypes that identify them as a socially invisible class of human labour.
This is where the Harpic World Toilet College (HWTC) steps in to address the “supply side”—people who carry out sanitation work and bridge the gap between sanitation infrastructure and the provision of sanitation services. Its efforts are leading to the sanitation workers gaining education and becoming aware of their entitlements.
A major challenge to efforts of the sanitation workers to find a respectable position in the society is the stereotype that links them almost inseparably to their work. People who have an opportunity to escape somehow eventually land back in the filth they wanted to escape, in part because the “Dalit” tag refuses to leave them.
The role of HWTC becomes significant here. This college helps sanitation workers escape their generations-old occupation by planting seeds of change deep within their minds. The project is changing the lives of sanitation workers. One of them is Manju Rani.
“My life has transformed after joining the Harpic World Toilet College,” says Manju. “Earlier, I used to live in unhygienic conditions, but now I keep myself clean, take pride in my work and perform my duties diligently. We used to be social outcasts, but now, due to the HWTC, people’s perspective towards us has changed, and we are treated with respect,” she adds.
Efforts by the society can help fight age-old prejudices against others. On its own, even the government cannot do much beyond a point. In 2018, for instance, the government identified 58,098 manual scavengers for a one-time cash assistance of Rs 40,000 to enable rehabilitation, and 16,057 were provided with skill development training, along with their dependents, by the Ministry of Social Justice. But this was just a drop in the ocean. So it is heartening to see efforts to uplift sanitation workers and give them the chance to improve their lot.
Says Pinky Vivek Jadhav, “I am the only breadwinner in my family of five. Before I connected with the HWTC, I would have less than Rs 5,000 to pay rent, feed and educate my kids. My daughter had to leave school because I could no longer afford it. I also had to pay for my mother-in-law’s treatment and medication.”
“I have rights too and now I know it,” Jadhav says of her training at HWTC. During the pandemic, she became a beneficiary of the Jagran Pehel Covid-19 Relief Fund, with which she set up a small grocery shop near her home. “My family and I are very happy in our little shop that gives us everything we need for a better life,” she smiles.
Uganta Umarwal’s story is somewhat similar. She was born into a family of manual scavengers and took up the work at the age of 10. “I was born an untouchable, and I started scavenging at 10,” she says. “I would collect human waste from dry latrines in a basket and walk three kilometres to dump it in the woods for Rs 300 a month. It was dirty work, and the smell of waste would drive me mad. I often woke up in the middle of the night screaming, covered in sweat, feeling numb and afraid. When I refused to do the work, my mother beat me. When I got married, my husband was unemployed, alcoholic and abusive. So I eventually got on a bus with my daughters, returned to my parents, and resumed scavenging.”
Umarwal, 38, was rescued by Dr Bindeshwar Pathak (of Sulabh International fame) in 2008. At the time, she worked in 15 houses while her daughters helped her collect the trash. For many years, she had suffered from acute stress and sleep disorder. Pathak promised Umarwal a stipend and an opportunity to learn new skills at Sulabh’s vocational centre, Nai Disha, in Tonk, Rajasthan.
“I enrolled along with my older daughter,” she says. “I learnt to stitch and was also taught about personal health and hygiene.” The programme helped her make a respectable living by stitching clothes. “I love my job, my life is transformed, and I could not be happier,” she says, adding, “My only regret is I could not educate my daughters.” The skills that come with vocational training give them confidence and magnify their survival skills.
Sunita Sunil Bhondave worked in the bungalows in the main town of Nashik, cleaning from 8:30 am to 4 pm. She earned Rs 6,000 from this work. Her young children always faced seasonal illness, which meant she needed to be made aware of general health, family health and sanitation. But her poverty left her helpless.
Following her training at the HWTC, Bhondave got a job with a reputed city hospital. Here, she was paid Rs 11,000 a month. She put aside some money to join an all-women’s self-help group.
Later, the SHG helped her obtain a bank loan of Rs 200,000, with which she started a sarees and garments business in partnership with another friend. Now, she earns Rs 15,000 every month, and her improved financial situation has helped her to meet the requirements of her children.
Another inspirational story is that of 38-year-old Usha Sharma, a Padma Shri awardee. “I was married off at 10 and was pushed into manual scavenging, which was the only occupation my family had known for generations. I would clean the night soil. We were treated as untouchable,” recalls Sharma.
But things took a dramatic turn for Sharma when she met Dr Bindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh International, who has helped transform the lives of hundreds of women by training them in other livelihood options, such as embroidery and making condiments. “I was fortunate to be rehabilitated by Sulabh, and I now work as a motivator with them, educating the masses about the importance of safe sanitation and social equality,” she explains.
Sharma was awarded the prestigious Padma Shri in 2020 for her role in transforming and uplifting those who work in the sanitation sector. A far cry from the girl treated as untouchable, she now attends conferences and events in India and abroad, even representing the country at international events.
“I am now invited to upper caste households for weddings,” Sharma says with pride.
Interestingly, with the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, the HWTC switched to an online app-based programme, conducting training virtually while focussing on bringing in transformational change. A full review and revision of the curriculum has led to including mechanised cleaning as part of the training. The digital training module too has been translated into six languages.
There is a desperate need to break the stereotypes in caste-driven occupations and provide entrepreneurial opportunities, and ensure that the beneficiaries are not forced to return to occupations they are not comfortable with. If the proof of the pudding lies in its taste, it will be fair to say that while all the trained sanitation workers have secured sustainable jobs, some have even been placed in top corporates in the hospitality, entertainment, auto and healthcare sectors. For example, the WTC Patiala places students in hospitals, malls and office buildings. An alumni engagement portal has been developed for referrals given by previous HWTC students for a larger reach.
The HWTC has also bagged the Mahatma Award for Social Good, the UNDP Diversity, Equity and Inclusion award as the best social mobility programme and the appreciation from Aurangabad Municipal Corporation.
(The author is a senior journalist)