From manually carrying excreta to being a receipt of the Padma Shri Award – Usha Chaumar
is a beacon of hope to every single person out in the world. Her commendable courage and
her deathly diligence towards improving the very society that confined her every movement
is a testament to her large-hearted character.
By the tender of 14, most of Usha’s the course of Usha’s life had been decided – none of it
from her own will. At seven years, she started her job as a manual scavenger, at ten years, she
had been married and by fourteen years she was living in her mother in law’s house. Her
story is that of an unfortunate child that was trapped in a vicious cycle imposed by society,
only to break free and emerge as a hero.
Manual Scavenging, by definition, is “the practice of manually cleaning, carrying, disposing
or handling human and animal excreta from dry latrines, sewers, and streets.” It is completely
a caste-based practice and is assigned as derogatory work to the ‘Dalits’ or ‘The
Untouchables’ in Indian society.
A tiny 7-year-old Usha was introduced to manual scavenging by her mother. The women in
her family for many generations had been doing the same work – for Usha it was like a
predisposed genetic condition. Usha was shrouded with shame as she walked through the
roads in her village – she was looked down upon for her professions but if she ever tried to
break the rut, she was immediately reminded that this was her ‘place’ in society. Her worth
was defined by the amount of excreta she carried.
At ten, she could only hope that the boy she was marrying would grow up to be a man that
respected her, and at fourteen, she could only hope that her mother-in-law’s household would
be the place for her salvation. While the former turned out in her favor, the latter could not be
farther away from the truth. Her mother in law, too, worked as a manual scavenger, and Usha
was forcibly trapped.
In a wonderful twist of fate, Usha met Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak- a man who propelled her into
joining a program that enabled her to learn skills such as stitching and making lamps or
preparing condiments like jams and pickle.
Today, Usha is a well-learned woman who has a knack for marketing and business making
her an excellent leader for the Nai Disha NGO – an organization that is working to abolish
manual scavenging as a profession. She shares her own experiences with women that are
stuck in the same vicious cycle as she was and empowers them to increase their potential
A woman that was never looked in the eye by people is today looked up to by the same
people for her incredible work and contribution to society. She says “ I want every woman to
be independent through dignified jobs. That is how we will build a better society, free of
untouchability” and there is no one better to pioneer such a goal.
She is an unconventional beauty.