As told to Abhishek Jha:
My name is Lalibai and I didn’t burn my neighbour’s house. I don’t know who did it. Perhaps, those who came to burn my house. Yet I was accused of burning the neighbour’s house and his livestock.
I know why they want me dead. For 15 years I cleaned their excrement with my bare hands, kneeled before them for payment, and begged for food. I accepted their orders.
When I challenged this power, I knew they would retaliate. If they had their way, I would still be a manual scavenger. The government may have made a law against manual scavenging, but it doesn’t care. They still hold the cards.
But I refused to bow down. I quit manual scavenging in 2002. I refuse to do this filthy work and have vowed to not let anybody else do this demeaning work either. I am 40 now but I have new dreams. This is my story.
I was born in a Dalit family in Teela, a small village in Pratapgarh, Rajasthan. The practice of manual scavenging didn’t exist in my village but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any discrimination. My brother was beaten to death by his teacher for using a glass to drink water. After that my three siblings and I were too scared to go to that school. My parents were too poor to send us to any other. We remained illiterate.
One mouth too many to feed, and as custom demanded, I was married off when I was around eight to a stranger in Dhariyakhedi, Madhya Pradesh. By the age of 10, I was a manual scavenger several hundred kilometres away from home.
Between me and 10 others, we cleaned dry toilets in the homes of upper-caste people of the entire village. I cleaned 15 toilets on an average each day. It was a hereditary occupation.
We barely got a chapati to eat in a day. My family of 25 was perpetually hungry. We were not allowed inside temples. If we had to go out, we had to wear a veil. They didn’t even let us wear slippers! This profession, if one can call it that, brought its own shame. Not just for me, but also for my children. When my children’s classmates would see me coming, they would tell my kids, “Look, there goes your mother with a basket of faeces on her head.” They would hurl casteist abuses at them. They always sat at the very back in class.
Sometime in 2002, all this changed. Ashif Shaikh, an activist, visited us from Dewas and told us to give up manual scavenging. We were reluctant at first. It was a matter of livelihood after all. What would we eat? Nobody would give us any other work, we feared. The Thakurs would probably not even allow us to live in the village.
Over the course of 2002, we met Ashif sir again. We told him about the discrimination we faced. After a couple of such conversations, we decided to give up manual scavenging. The repercussions followed soon. We were told we couldn’t live in the village anymore. “Why won’t you let us live in the village?” we asked them. “We don’t want to do this work and we will not,” we told them.
Gradually, perhaps because of Ashif’s visits or fear amongst upper castes of legal action, we started getting work in the village. We may only work in farms and earn about Rs. 150 for a day’s work, but we get work in our village. However, it took more than staunch determination. No one was willing to give us work in the village. So we started travelling to a place that was 12-20 kilometres away from our village to work as daily wagers and farm-hands. In 2006, they tried to burn down our house by pouring kerosene around it while we were asleep. Fortunately, our house was saved but my neighbour’s got burnt in the process. They told the police that I had gone mad and burnt the neighbour’s house. That case is still in court.
After securing work, my women friends and I – 11 of us – decided to organise ourselves. We formed a group called Garima Shakti Sangathan and visited nearby villages. We spoke to the women in these villages and made them give up manual scavenging. So far, we have freed 165 women in Mandsaur from the clutches of this demeaning work.
Organising ourselves has empowered us and has given teeth to our fight. We now feel capable of fighting for our rights on our own. If somebody is beaten up, we go to the police station without fear. We know our rights. If somebody wants to demand something from the panchayat, we call all Dalit women and then go the panchayat.
I can only write my name but if we need to write applications for a ration card or to the collector, we ask the educated women among us for help. They draft the application, all of us sign it and we give it to authorities.
This new life – that of an activist – has changed some things already. Unlike my children, children from our community now sit in the front row in the classroom if they so desire. We eat better. When we quit manual scavenging, they used to taunt us. “Where are you going? Who will do our work?”, they would ask. Now we tell them off without hesitation. Either build a sanitary toilet or your women can go outside, to the jungle, we tell them. It’s is not our concern anymore, we have made it clear to them. This is possible now because we don’t depend on them. “Earlier we had to beg you for bread. Now we don’t need to ask for even a crumb from you,” we say.
We have settled village disputes, but our daily struggles continue. I have gathered strength from fellow women of my organisation to continue fighting. They respect me for the work I do. When I think of the future, I hope nobody in my family has to ever do the work I was forced to do. I wish that they all find employment at a good place and make us proud. I wish that they are respected in life. This is my dream.
The practice of manual scavenging is illegal as per the Constitution of India, with specific Acts passed such as the Protection of Civil Rights Act of 1955, The Employment of Manual Scavenging and the Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act of 1993 and The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act of 2013. And that’s not all. Read more here.