Karauli: Every day at 6 am, Reena stealthily heads out from her house with the veil of her saree pulled down till her nose to avoid being seen when leaving to do the job she hates the most -- removing human excrement with her bare hands.
Living just 325 km from the national capital in Rajasthan`s Karauli district, Reena is among 116 manual scavengers the central government had identified for rehabilitation two years ago. She was employed as a sweeper in the local civic body but was thrown out of her job which forced her to resume manual scavenging.
"My own children run away from me when I reach home. They say I stink and make them throw up," Reena told a visiting IANS correspondent.
Reena is among the many women in impoverished Karauli who are forced to make ends meet by doing manual scavenging. Despite the existence of strict laws prohibiting manual scavenging in the country, the centuries-old practice is still rampant in many areas.
Belonging to the lowest rung of the Hindu caste hierarchy, these women clean dry latrines and carry the faeces in bamboo baskets on their heads for dumping in a faraway place.
After a great deal of persuasion, Reena and five other manual scavengers agreed to meet this IANS correspondent and narrate their ordeal.
"Three days after my marriage, my mother-in-law took me along with her and forced me to remove excreta from a house. After that I had to be admitted to a hospital for three days," sharp-featured Sulekha (name changed), 30, told IANS.
She cleans the toilets of 15 houses every morning - and the amount she gets from each house is an appallingly low Rs.20 per month.
The women frequently complain of headaches, stomach aches and nausea - due to inhaling the noxious fumes during their work. The women are also malnourished.
"We cannot miss work even for a day as the dirt gets piled up in the dry latrines and the stench worsens. Even if we want to take a day off, the families forcibly drag us from our homes," Namrata (name changed), in her early 30s, told IANS.
"I could not escape this work even during my pregnancy. My child is stunted and always sick," Namrata added.
One common factor in these women is their reddish-black corroded teeth that comes from chewing gutka (flavoured betel nut) most of the time.
"To clean the mess, either you have to be dead drunk or have gutka in your mouth. The scent of gutka keeps us from vomiting," Reena said.
"The government claims that these women have been rehabilitated, but this is not the case. The majority of them had to get back to manual scavenging because they could not get jobs," Rajesh Sharma, programme coordinator of local NGO Dang Vikas Sansthan, told IANS.
"I thought my life would become better when I was employed as a sweeper in the nagarpalika (civic body), but I got thrown out of the job after two months because it was a contractual one," Meena (name changed), told IANS.
"I was left in the lurch because I was jobless. I had to resort to manual scavenging as nobody employed me because of my caste and past job," a distraught Meena added.
These women live on the largesse of the houses they work in.
The yellow floral sari which a pale looking Ratan (name changed), in her early 30s, was wearing and the bracelet on her wrist are gifts from her employers, she said.
"Can you ever imagine us buying clothes? We wear the worn out clothes of our employers," said Ratan.
Their children are malnourished with stunted growth.
But then, help looks near at hand. The district administration, perhaps rattled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi`s promise of "Swach Bharat" (clean India) to provide toilets in every home by 2019, said it would "look into" their case.
"Manual scavenging is a blot on modern India. It`s a matter for the municipal council to do something. I will look into their cases," district collector Babulal Jatawat told IANS.