#IAmChange: Usha Chaumar And Her Journey From Darkness To Light

She is the harbinger of change for scores of marginalised women. Meet Padma Shri awardee Usha Chaumar, who was once a manual scavenger. Read her story right here.

By Monali Bordoloi

#IAmChange: Usha Chaumar And Her Journey From Darkness To Light
Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome. - Booker T Washington, an American educator, author and orator.

The seventh in this exclusive 8-part series of #IAmWoman relates to #IAmChange

Can you imagine a 7-year-old girl cleaning dry latrines along with her mother? Well, that was Usha Chaumar’s childhood – her sad reality. When opportunity came knocking, despite being discouraged, she took the leap of faith and followed her heart. That leap changed her life around! Today, this feisty lady stands tall as the President of the NGO, Sulabh International and is ardently working towards spreading awareness about women empowerment and importance of sanitation. She is the true embodiment of women's emancipation.

#IAmChange: Usha Chaumar And Her Journey From Darkness To Light

Usha was recently awarded the Padma Shri and we couldn’t wait to catch up with her. Here are the excerpts from the inspiring interview:

Tell us about your childhood.

Children in communities like mine don’t have childhoods to look back on. We hardly go to schools. Like other children in my community, from the age of seven, I started manual scavenging with my mother. I was so disgusted after doing such dirty work that I would not feel like eating anything.

Further, as per the customs we follow in our area Deeg in Rajasthan, I was married off quite early at the age of 10. When I turned 14, I moved to my in-laws’ place. For us, marriage means only change of place, we continue to work as manual scavengers even after getting married. Since I have been through it all and seen the ugly side of life, now, I want to stop and rescue other women and children from working in such horrific conditions.

How did you deal with the discrimination?

People like us, we grew up in abject poverty and faced discrimination at every step of the way. No one wants to do anything with us, we are not allowed inside temples and homes. We were literally treated like ‘untouchables.’ No one would mingle us or with our kids in schools. We were not even called by our names, we would be addressed as bhangi or jamadar. It was just a part of life.

So, who helped you come out of manual scavenging and how?

Dr Bindeshwar Pathak ji, founder of Sulabh International, entered our lives like a messiah. Meeting him changed our lives forever. Dr Pathak had come to Alwar and saw us doing manual scavenging at a place incidentally named as Maila Chowk (Dirty Place). He then asked us if we would stop doing this job if we got other jobs. We all wanted to come out of this dishonourable and filthy way of living but we were unsure if we would get jobs elsewhere. When he told us that they would train us in different skills and provide for us, many of us agreed to join. It was he who explained to us that the work we were doing was hazardous to our health. He made us understand that we don’t have to stick to a job just because of our caste and that it has been passed down from generation to generation. He also talked to us about the importance of learning alternate livelihood skills, education and educating our children so that they have a better tomorrow. Nai Disha, an NGO, brought new hope into our lives and we began to live in a more dignified way.

#IAmChange: Usha Chaumar And Her Journey From Darkness To Light

Please share with us your journey on how you became the president of Sulabh International Social Service.

When I first told my family about Pathak ji’s plans for us, my in-laws were very skeptical about it. They warned me that while trying for other jobs, I might lose the regular income that comes from scavenging. They also reminded me that our community and families have been doing this work over ages. But my husband came forward, supported me and asked me to go ahead. I still remember the feeling when Pathak ji sent a car to take me to the Sulabh International head office in Delhi. It was my first time inside a car, and I still remember how excited and thrilled I was about it.

Once we reached the Delhi office of Sulabh International, we were explained the importance of health and hygiene, and why we should not do the job of a manual scavenging. Later, back in Alwar, we learned to read and write. We were also trained in various vocational courses like making acchar, papad, mehendi art, jute bags, stitching, embroidery, etc. Our lives transformed overnight as we embarked on a journey of self-respect and financial independence.

It was again on Pathak Ji’s insistence that I was chosen to be the face of Sulabh International. I was elected by the other women of the organisation to be the President. At that time, I was still learning to adjust to our new lives. I learnt so many things on the job. Our lives were like a living hell before, but after crossing paths with Dr Pathak ji and Sulabh, we consider our present life as heaven. So, we have seen both heaven and hell in one lifetime!

#IAmChange: Usha Chaumar And Her Journey From Darkness To Light

What are your plans to eradicate manual scavenging from our society?

We are doing everything in our means to eradicate the menace of manual scavenging. Manual scavenging is a horrific practice which is still being practiced in some parts of India, although it was banned by the law since 1993. Across India, Pathak ji and Sulabh International are spreading awareness, empowering women and changing their lives. I am a living example of that. Now, I too travel to different places to help spread awareness about sanitation and stop this horrendous practice of manual scavenging. The NGO is also educating and urging people to construct permanent two-pit latrines. Till the time we have those ‘kachcha latrines’ the practice of manual scavenging will continue.

What can be done to eliminate the class divide?

Things are already changing. Economic independence brings about the change. Once we were treated like untouchables, now the products we make at our NGO centre reach the very households where we used to work as manual scavengers.

#IAmChange: Usha Chaumar And Her Journey From Darkness To Light


What was your reaction when you were selected for the Padma Shri award?

I was overjoyed. It is a huge recognition – not just for me but for my entire community who used to live in utter inhuman conditions. I would like to thank Pathak ji for his untiring works towards the cause and letting us front the organisation and empowering us in the process. Now, I want to take his mission forward.

What are your views on raising daughters in today’s world?

Most of my community people are not literate. Mothers refused to send their daughters to school as all of us would anyway end up as manual scavengers. But now, things have changed. Our daughters are attending schools. We all believe in the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao and raising our daughters in such a way that they grow up independent, both emotionally and financially.

What is your message to women on Women’s Day?

Women should come out of their homes to learn new skills to support themselves. Never think that you are less capable than a man. We are as good as any man. There is no such work that a woman cannot do, these days ladies are even flying planes too! We need to unite and come forward in life. For a woman, it is important to look after home, but responsibilities of home should be divided between both husband and wife. More and more women should come out of their homes and look for job opportunities and economic independence.

To listen to the entire interview with Usha Chaumar, check out our exclusive podcast!

Hall of fame:

  • 2020: Awarded the prestigious Padma Shri. It is India’s fourth-highest civilian honour.
  • 2018: Made the president of Sulabh International, an NGO.
  • 2015: Won the Safaigiri Award from the Prime Minister for cleaning the Assi ghat in Benaras.

Also read: #IAmResilience: Deepa Malik From Paralysis To Paralympics

About the author:

Written by Monali Bordoloi on 05 February 2020.

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