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From Alwar grime to NY glitterati

Shedding off their miserable past, these ex-scavengers are now in anticipation of their hour of glory: walking the ramp at a unique fashion show for the United Nations general assembly on July 2. Srinand Jha tells more.

india Updated: May 15, 2008 00:25 IST
Srinand Jha

How about a gathering where a throng of liberated scavenger women from Rajasthan’s Alwar district rub shoulders with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Melinda Gates and Aishwarya Rai?

The idea is not half as bizarre as it sounds. Shedding off their miserable past, these ex-scavengers are now in anticipation of their hour of glory: walking the ramp at a unique fashion show for the United Nations general assembly on July 2. They will be all decked up in apparel designed by the man famed for having created Michael Jackson’s wardrobe: Abdul Haldar.

Fifteen years after the legislative ban on manual scavenging, lakhs of individuals across India (mostly women) remain trapped in the degrading work of cleaning dry latrines and carrying the night-soil on their heads in containers — mostly in small towns and rural areas where sanitation facilities do not exist.

Official pronouncements about eradicating manual scavenging have not translated into actionable programmes. The Union government’s estimates are that 3.42 lakh persons are engaged in manual scavenging in India, although voluntary organisations say the numbers are at least four times higher.

Over past decades, a large number of schemes and missions have been launched with aims of eradicating manual scavenging but few of them have been able to effectively tackle the problem, said Dr Bindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh International – which is jointly co-sponsoring the event in association with the Irene Network (a UN voluntary organisation) and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA).

The event – being organised in observance of the International Year of Sanitation 2008 – does hold out a promise: a 20-minute music programme that lists the names of Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones among the possible performing artistes.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will deliver the keynote address and celebrities expected to deliver support statements will include the current Miss Universe spokeswoman Riyo Mori, Hollywood actors Matt Damon and Hillary Swank and singers Wycelf Jean and Bono. A book titled ‘Princesses of Alwar’ will also be released on the occasion. Officials from 150 countries are expected to participate in the unique event.

Against the Rs 460 crore allocated during the 10th Plan for the National Scheme for Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers, only Rs 146.04 crore was released, Safai Karamchari Andolan national convener Bezwada Wilson points out.

He rues the fact that the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act 1993 had not been adopted by as many as 10 states and union territories. These include Jammu and Kashmir, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Sikkim, Mizoram, Delhi and Chandigarh.

Certain other states have adopted the Act, but not appointed the executive authority to prosecute violators. These include Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Kerala, Karnataka, Orissa, Rajasthan and Daman and Diu.