I hate scavenging, but what else can I do?

IN HIS Independence Day address this year, prime minister P V Narasimha Rao vowed to eliminate scavenging from the country within a year. But mere administrative fiats will not make life easier for people like Rameshwari, who estimates she is 35 and has been a scavenger for 15 years in Ajmer, a famous pilgrim centre in Rajasthan, with a population exceeding five lakhs. Rameshwari hates her job, but as she has no other source of earning a living, she worries about her fate should the prime minister's resolution do her out of a job. Excerpts from an interview with Rameshwari:

What is your full name?
They call me Rameshwari. I don't know what my husband writes after his name. But what difference would it make if we were to write Singh or Chauhan? Hum log bhangi janme hain, bhangi hi rahenge (We were born scavengers and will remain so) no matter what the sarkar says.

How long have you been in Ajmer?
I belong to Aora village. It is about eight hours away by bus. I don't know which district the village is in. I've hardly been there. My father came to Ajmer in 1965 when Pakistan attacked India. I was a baby then. My mother, who works in the municipality here, owns some land in the village, but my uncles have staked possession to it and she gets nothing.

What does your husband do?
He is a labourer in the railways. He has a permanent job with a monthly salary of Rs 2,500 and an annual bonus, but he drinks and gambles away his entire pay. Once in a while, maybe once in three or four months, when he is in a good mood, he throws some money at me. I have stopped asking him for money now. Earlier, he would thrash me every time I asked him for money.

How many children do you have?
I have four children -- three daughters and a son. My daughters are aged 13, 8 and 6, and my son is 12. The two older children go to the municipal school.

When do you start working?
I go out of the house to work at 7 am, but before that I cook for the family, feed the children and send the elder ones to school. I work till noon. Then I take a bath, but there are days when I bathe twice in the course of my work because the stench is unbearable.

The neighbours look after my children. Though my widowed mother-in-law stays with me, she does not look after the children or contribute to the household expenses though she gets Rs 600 every month as pension. She fights with me and gets me into trouble with my husband. Right now, my children and I are staying with my mother because I've fought with my husband. I've left home three times before because I was tired of my husband drinking and gambling his money away. Each time he persuaded me to return. We could have done so much with the money he earns. I am tired of the work I am doing, but I have to earn for my children's future.

How many houses do you work in and how much are you paid?
I work in 50 houses. I have to carry out excreta from five, for which they pay me Rs 20 per month. In the other houses, I clean the gutters, sweep the courtyard and clean the latrine and am paid Rs 10 per month. For just sweeping, I get Rs 5. So I earn about Rs 500 every month. At times I have to go hungry so that I can feed my children. Luckily, they have never had to go without food so far.

You mean you get just Rs 20 to cart away excreta?
Earlier, I used to get only a rupee. About a year ago, after much pleading, I managed to get my pay raised to Rs 5. Of course, earlier, I used to get rotis from these houses. When I got the money raised, I stopped taking rotis. Most people used to give me stale food that made my children sick. I don't think even dogs would eat that food. Hum aap logon ki tatti uthate hain, per hum bhi insaan hain. Sadda khaana khaake beemar padte hain (We clean your latrines, but we are human, too, and will fall ill when we eat bad food).

Do you get any holidays?
I work round the year, even on Diwali and Holi. Now that I am paid slightly more, the people make me sweep the chowk as well.

What happens when you fall ill?
When I just can't get up to go to work, my pay is cut. A few days ago, I was down with influenza for five days. The day I was well again, I started work at 5:30 am. I cannot describe what clearing out the five-day-old excreta was like. The stench makes you vomit. Sometimes I had to use my bare hands to clean the dirt. Over the years I have become inured to such things, but that day I remember I could not eat a thing. I don't know how many times I bathed. Yet they cut half a month's pay, even though I was absent for only five days.

Didn't you protest?
Of course I fought with them, but it's no use. Mera mazaak udate hain, poochte hain ki ab kya sau rupye legi (They taunt me and ask me whether I expect a hundred rupees)? Yet, when I fall ill, nobody asks me where I get the money to buy medicines.

Do you know the government plans to eliminate scavenging?
Yes, I know. Three months ago, the municipality issued handbills asking people to convert their pit latrines. Many people have already done so. They have gutters now which drain into the big nala. But since water is scarce in Ajmer, these nalas often get blocked. Then I have to clean out the mess with my hands, though I don't get paid any extra money. But ever since the municipality notice, I have less work and am earning less.

What will happen when scavenging is removed totally?
The prime minister keeps talking about it and I think it's just a matter of time before all the pit latrines in Ajmer become sanitary ones. I don't know what I'll do then. I hate my job, but what else can I do? I tried to get a job in the railways and with the municipality, but you need Rs 15,000 to bribe the authorities. Utne paise main kahan se laoon (Where can I get that much money)?

How do you know what the prime minister said?
Some time ago my husband bought a TV set, paying for it in instalments. I watch many of the programmes and the news regularly, when I'm at home. They talk a lot about scavengers nowadays and of schemes for them. But all that is in Delhi, on TV. I don't know how real it is. But if it's true, I feel happy at least some people benefit from the schemes, though I wonder how much they have to pay as bribes.

Has the government done anything for you?
Nothing so far. My children attend school in Dadubari and I pay Rs 10 per month as fees for each of them. Apart from that, I have to buy them books. They don't get any scholarships. A night school was opened in our locality and there I learnt to write my name. But after a few days, it was shut down. There has been talk for some months now of a sewing school, but nothing has happened so far.

Is there any pressure on you to get your daughter married?
No, I'm in no hurry to get my daughter married, even though my biradari (community) puts a lot of pressure on me at times. I will not let any of my children marry before they are 18. I've learnt about the ills of early marriage from TV and also experienced it myself -- I was about 15 when I got married. I want my children to be able to stand on their own feet first.

Have you never thought of doing dishwashing, laundry or cooking for a living?
Who will let me do those jobs? Every house here has a separate entrance to the latrine. I'm not even allowed to cross the threshold of a house. When we are born, our caste is not stamped on our foreheads. Yeh samajhne ke liye aur hamen izzat dene ke liye bahut bada dil chahiye (It takes a large-hearted person to understand this and treat us with respect). Only the very big people, who stay in bungalows, and the Christians treat us like human beings. Even the sarkar does not do so, for it would have thought of the repercussions on us before deciding to end scavenging.