RAJASTHAN: Everyone wants to meet Usha Chaumar. Ever since she returned to Alwar after receiving the Padma Shri from President Ram Nath Kovind in Delhi, she has become a sought after person. Usha lives in Hazuri Gate area of Alwar in Rajasthan.
She used to clean toilets door-to-door for years. People would run away even from her shadow. But since her return this week from Delhi, she is welcomed on the roads where she cleaned sewage. "People used to call me 'Bhangi' or 'Mehtrani'. They are now keen to meet me and treat me with respect," said Usha.
A scavenger from the age of seven, Usha was married off when she was barely 10 years old. In 2003, she used to clean mud and dirt from 10 houses, in return for which she would get Rs 10 from each household per month. She says the domestic waste was thrown into drains or in garbage somewhere nearby.
She recalls people's behaviour: they would throw eatables wrapped in a bag into her lap and no one would stand near her. Nor did they allow scavengers to buy goods from their shops. And of course, they were turned back from the temples.
Usha says that even now she is unable to eat 'dal'. The rotten smell of leftovers would return to haunt her the moment she sees it. "Seeing the colour of lentils, the sticky waste that I received as trash to dispose of, reappears. I used to feel nauseated even after returning home from the scavenging work. I would often fall sick, but had to do my work," says Usha.
Her life changed after 2003 when she came in contact with Sulabh International. "It was Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International, who helped me come out of my miserable life. He is like a father figure for me," says Usha.
These days, she works as the president of Sulabh International social service organisation and has been honoured several times for her social work. Talking about her unique journey, Usha said, "I never thought I would ever be able to leave scavenging. Dr Pathak made that happen. Frankly, this award belongs to him."
She never went to school. She says Dr Pathak had asked her and her group why they did this work. "We had answered with a counter question: who will give us another job? He then asked what we would do if he got us some other work," she says.
She and others did not believe him. "After all, how can people who would run away from our shadows would allow us to work on something else?"
Due to Sulabh International, Usha left Alwar for the first time. In Delhi, schoolgirls welcomed her, and her life changed. "I saw women doing various kinds of work. I also saw them fighting against discrimination. I thought about why I should do the dirty work -- everyone should pick up one's waste. Why should we do this filthy work for them?" recalls Usha. On her return to Alwar, she decided she would no longer do the scavenging work.
Usha then asked Dr Pathak who would buy the goods made by scavengers, He said he would buy them for Sulabh International. Later, she joined the Nayi Disha organisation and started learning about cleanliness. In addition, Usha started learning how to stitch clothes.
Today, people who stayed away from her shadow are buying items made by Usha and her group. Usha has three children. Her two sons do private jobs while daughter is a final year student of MA in Political Science.
Happy with her mother's achievement, she said, "The daughters of the family have been liberated from the curse of generations. Had my mother not shown a new path, I might have been doing the same work. Pathak Ji's dream has been fulfilled by my mother, and I will fulfil his dream as he wants me to become a professor."
Usha is also thankful to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. "I met the PM four times and have tied 'rakhi' to him. He has time and again raised awareness about cleanliness," she says. On her recent Padma award, Usha says her family members are extremely happy. "They say I have made Alwar proud," she concludes. She now raises awareness against manual scavenging.